The Boston Police Department, without fanfare, expanded its crime-fighting arsenal earlier this year, purchasing several drones that it may use to photograph crime scenes — and raising concerns among privacy advocates.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, after receiving a complaint in July that police officers were seen flying a drone over a Jamaica Plain housing development, learned through a public records request that the department had spent nearly $17,500 on three drones and related equipment over a three-month period beginning in January. The ACLU provided the documents to the Globe.
A Police Department spokesman said that investigators are “considering using this equipment due to its ability to photograph and capture an aerial view of a crime scene” but that there are no immediate plans to do so.
“If we get to that point, community input and discussions will precede any decision to use this technology,” said Lieutenant Detective Michael McCarthy.
Law enforcement agencies have increasingly employed drones for surveillance in recent years, but they typically reserve their use for major public events such as the Fourth of July concert on the Esplanade and the Boston Marathon, where tethered drones oversaw the scene near the starting line.
But police are also using them on a smaller scale. Last Monday, police in Barnstable used a drone with an infrared camera to catch a suspect who was hiding in a pond. The drone, which can detect heat, has also been used in missing persons cases, Barnstable police said.
The prospect of police using them more routinely, particularly for surveillance, has met sharp resistance. Civil liberties groups say the devices, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, threaten privacy rights, and without proper regulation could be used to target communities without probable cause or judicial oversight.
Boston police would not say whether the devices were purchased with city, state, or federal funding. Police Commissioner William B. Evans was not available for comment.
But residents of the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments said they have already seen police using drones. Corey My-Kel McMillen, a community activist who lives there, said neighbors came to him in July after spotting a drone hovering over buildings and a park.
McMillen said it wasn’t long before he spotted the device from his window and saw two Boston police officers handling it in a parking lot on Heath Street. He took photos, which he provided to the Globe. One shows a drone with bright red lights in the air, and another shows a drone on the ground, a few feet away from the officers.
“One officer had the drone in his hand,” McMillen said. “He let it go and flew it 20 to 25 feet in the air. He seemed to be testing it out.”
McMillen said the department should have informed residents about their plans.
“They haven’t said anything about a drone flying around,” he said. “When you see a drone you don’t know who’s controlling it. It’s an abuse of privacy.”
But McCarthy said the drones are still in their packaging.
“No tests have been done,” McCarthy said in a prepared statement. “Again, we are not using them.”
McCarthy said it is likely the two officers photographed were “playing with a toy,” adding that officers are “not authorized to use personal equipment in the performance of their official duties.”
Residents and civil liberties advocates are skeptical, and they expressed concern that city and police officials have left them in the dark about their plans for the devices.
“If the Boston Police Department wants to earn the community’s trust, they should be more than willing to discuss in advance their plans to use this technology and if they are deploying them in communities,” said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts.
Crockford said the department should have informed the public of its plans to purchase drones beforehand.
Boston City Council President Michelle Wu said that she had not known the department bought the drones, but that she agreed that the community should have a say in their use, “particularly when talking about law enforcement and their interaction with the community, ensuring accountability, and privacy rights.”
“From our perspective, the community needs to have input before anything is deployed,” Wu said.
After spotting the drone, McMillen immediately contacted the ACLU of Massachusetts, which filed a public records request on July 17. The Police Department denied the ACLU’s request for its policy on drones, saying it was “in the draft stage.”
Nicole Caravella, a spokeswoman for Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, said that “no sanctioned official use of drones has been permitted or conducted by BPD.”
“If and when the Boston Police Department uses the drones, it will be after a community engagement process,” she said.
Crockford said at least 37 states have passed legislation regulating the use of drones. In Massachusetts, bills have been filed to ban the use of facial recognition technology on drones and to prevent them from targeting individuals or groups based on political, religious, or social views.
State Police use drones to document the scenes of car crashes and major crimes, agency spokesman David Procopio said in a prepared statement.
“They allow for us to clear scenes more quickly than we otherwise could, and thus perform reconstructions more efficiently and with less disruption to traffic and the public,” Procopio said.
He said the drones are not used for routine matters or ordinary surveillance.
“Most police agencies are using [drones] for accident investigations and crime scene investigations, not active law enforcement investigations,” said Matthew Wicks, executive director of Fire Tech & Safety of New England Inc., the company that sold the drones to the Boston police. “The [drone] program is a very valuable tool to first responders and EMS. It’s not a scary thing.”
Charles Jennings, director of the Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said drones are useful in tactical situations when a person has barricaded himself. The devices allow officers to resolve such matters without putting themselves in danger, he said.
But Jennings said “there should be full public disclosure about their use, and when they will be used.”
Jamal Benjamin, 27, who lives at the Hailey Apartments, said the drone sighting has made him feel uneasy.
“What is this drone doing out there?” he said. “Now I’m feeling uncomfortable, like someone’s keeping tabs on me without my knowledge.”Jan Ransom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Jan_Ransom.