Phoenix Police Drones are Coming Sooner Than You Think

Assistant police chief Michael Kurtenbach presents on the agency's drone plans on Wednesday night.
Assistant police chief Michael Kurtenbach presents on the agency's drone plans on Wednesday night. City of Phoenix
After several hours of debate and spirited public response during the Phoenix City Council meeting this week, local officials agreed to authorize the police department to purchase public safety drones right away.

Late Wednesday night the Phoenix City Council voted 6-3 after a lengthy, and at times heated, discussion.

The request was submitted to the city council at the last minute, fast-tracking the agency’s plans to implement the technology.

Some council members put pressure on the city to quickly approve the use of police drones this week, following a shooting in South Phoenix on February 11.

During the incident, five Phoenix police officers were shot, and nine injured, after responding to a domestic violence call. The suspect, Morris Jones, shot and killed his former girlfriend, fired at Phoenix police officers, and then killed himself, according to police accounts and an autopsy by the Maricopa County Medical Examiner.

All officers have been released from the hospital, though some are still off-duty, recovering from their injuries.
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Several councilmembers and mayor Kate Gallego submitted a letter to the council, requesting the drone program be expedited.
City of Phoenix

“The time for action is now,” Councilmember Ann O’Brien wrote in a statement issued the same day of the incident. “It is unacceptable that the fifth-largest city in the United States does not have the technology or capabilities to adequately protect our officers.”

Phoenix police did, in fact, deploy a drone during the mid-February shootings. They borrowed it from the city of Glendale.

Andrew Williams, a Phoenix police spokesperson, said that officers used it to “help look inside the house and see where Morris Jones was, without putting any officers in unnecessary danger.”

Ultimately, a memo requesting the city move the drone program forward was signed by Councilmembers Jim Waring, Deb Stark, and O’Brien, as well as Mayor Kate Gallego.

Originally, though, council members on the city’s public safety committee had been wary of signing off on drones for Phoenix police.

At a committee meeting last month, the Phoenix Fire Department requested to kick off its drone program this year, citing the technology’s use in mountain rescues and major fires. Fire officials also suggested that the committee approve drones for the police department.

At the meeting, Councilmember Carlos Garcia had voiced concerns that the police department had offered little information about its plans for the technology by shoehorning the proposal into the fire department’s presentation. Garcia worried, he said, that without proper oversight, the drones could pose privacy concerns.

The committee agreed to allow Phoenix Fire to go ahead with its drone purchases — so it could roll the tech out by the summer — but asked Phoenix police to come back for approval separately, with a more fleshed-out plan.
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Phoenix city councilmember Carlos Garcia opposed the fast-tracked drone plan.
City of Phoenix

This new proposal will circumvent that, instead allowing Phoenix police to go ahead with the drone purchase “as soon as possible,” according to a memo, without presenting a policy first to the council.

This plan proved contentious on Wednesday.

“I do not feel comfortable giving a blank check to figure out what kind of drones you may want to purchase without us knowing the policies,” Garcia said, noting that the police department was under ongoing investigation by the Department of Justice for potential civil rights violations. He called the manner in which the council made the decision “reactionary.”

He added that the fact that Phoenix police was already using borrowed drones — like the Glendale drone — was a concern, given that the department admittedly does not yet have any formal guidelines at all for its use of the technology.

“We’ve admitted to using drones without having a policy,” Garcia said, “And now we’re being asked to trust that we won’t use them again until we have a policy.”

Councilman Sal DiCiccio, usually a staunch supporter of the Phoenix Police Department, said he had “major concerns” about the plan, given its potential to infringe on the rights of protesters or citizens. “A strong, specific policy needs to be implemented first before we go down this path,” he said.

Garcia and DiCiccio voted against the program, alongside council member Betty Guardado.

But their colleagues dismissed some of their concerns, arguing that the procurement process, which will likely take around six months, will allow the council time to hear from the public and shape the drone policy.

“We’re all going to get a chance to weigh in on this policy,” said Councilmember Jim Waring. “There is time for everyone to see all the available documents and express their concerns.”

Adriana Maximiliano, Garcia’s chief of staff, expressed frustration with the hurried briefing that the council received on the issue from the police department, which contained just ten bullet points on the proposed use for the drones.

No mention was made of privacy safeguards or other guidelines around the use of the drones in the document — which council members had initially wanted to review before they approved the program.

Assistant Chief Michael Kurtenbach told the council that the department has been working on a draft policy that “very clearly outlines under what circumstances we can use the technology and that we would hold privacy and civil liberties dear.”

The drones would be used in both tactical situations and “event management,” which would surveil crowds, Kurtenbach said.

The proposal had attracted nearly 50 public comments by Wednesday afternoon from Phoenix residents on both sides of the issue, mostly in favor of adopting the technology.

“Officers need real time intelligence to keep officers safe,” wrote James Jennings, saying it was “embarrassing” that the department had been forced to borrow the tech from a different department.

But others objected.

“I do not support the purchase because there are no defined protections for citizens against surveillance by the police, especially during protests and large events,” countered Karen Loschiavo.

Others questioned whether the use of the Glendale drone on February 11 proved effective.

“Having a drone didn’t prevent deaths or overzealous officers being injured during the recent domestic incident turned shootout,” wrote Rachel Parker, calling the technology a “toy for overreach.”

Some critics of the technology said that the Phoenix Police Department’s history of surveillance of activists should draw further scrutiny to the launch of the program.

“Perhaps most concerning is the fact that there are no explicit policies or regulations governing aerial surveillance technologies in this proposal,” said Brianna Westbrook, an activist in Phoenix and state legislative candidate. It was “obvious,” she said, that investment in such tools “should be subject to independent public audits.”

Williams, the police spokesperson, wrote in an email before the Wednesday meeting that the agency was “not available to comment on items going before city council for a vote.”

Assistant City Manager Lori Bays said it would likely take around six months for the police department to buy the drones and begin using them. The city plans to develop its policies and hold community engagement sessions during that time.
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk