Mesa County Police Have Been Using Drones For Years, Still Coming Up With Rules On Use

from the spy-games dept

The march towards drones becoming a common tool for domestic law enforcement agencies seems inevitable and some people aren’t happy about it. We’ve already covered the backlash against one artist who satarized New York City’s drone program. San Diego, for their part, valiantly refused to honor an FOIA request on their domestic UAV program because they determined on their own that there wouldn’t be a public benefit to the disclosure. MuckRock thought that was a dodge not afforded San Diego under FOIA rules, but San Diego again declined to say anything at all about the program.

SUAV Falken
“Sorry, citizen, but Detective Iron Death-Spy is very, very shy.”
Image source: CC BY 2.0

But one thing that has generally been accepted is that law enforcement agencies were required to operate these drones under very strict guidelines and within very strict geographic boundaries. It would appear, for Mesa County, Colorado at least, that may not be universally true. The EFF's Drone Census project has uncovered that Mesa County has two UAVs and can operate them without many of the restrictions in place elsewhere.

The MCSO must abide by standard FAA restrictions on domestic UAV flights, which cap flights to below 400 feet and preclude night flights or operating over “populated areas, heavily trafficked roads, or an open-air assembly of people.” But MCSO’s drone authorization includes no geographic restrictions: effectively, the agency can fly its UAVs anywhere in Mesa County. This freedom has allowed the agency to log dozens of operational missions since fall 2010. MCSO flight logs indicate that its UAV team has logged more than 160 flight hours on its drones since January 2011.

So, whereas other UAV programs are restricted to flying over areas where they could chiefly assist in locating missing people in difficult to surveil areas, Mesa County can fly them anywhere within their jurisdiction without any limitations beyond the somewhat vague-sounding “populated areas, heavily trafficked roads” or the open air above a large assembly of people. That can leave a great deal of sky to buzz around with less of the oversight I think is desperately needed in programs like this.

Now, just to be clear, these drones do not carry arms. They are used for imaging. Then again, as the creep continues, the rules keep shifting towards greater use and application, so it wouldn’t be fair to slam anyone concerned that someday we may indeed see armed UAVs over our skies. Equally worrying is this:

MCSO has been using drones operationally for two years, but the department has no written drone policy outlining the uses for which its officers may deploy UAVs. Ms. Barnes writes that MCSO is “currently in the process of drafting a written policy for the use of our unmanned aircraft.”

Well, that’s just peaches. Military-style technology deployed domestically without any official policy for its use. I feel so warm and fuzzy inside.

Filed Under: , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Mesa County Police Have Been Using Drones For Years, Still Coming Up With Rules On Use”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Ninja (profile) says:

It would seem to me that America gave up Freedom when they decided they needed Security. As it is wisely note, those who give up Freedom to acquire Security deserve neither. And now people are waking up to the false Security these measures are actually providing. Unfortunately it is too late to simply trash the surveillance efforts, the Government has grown accustomed to using it against its own Citizens. This will not be stopped by democratic means.

Spike (profile) says:

Doing the math

Did anyone else do the math on that “160 hours of flight time since January 2011”? Two drones, times two years, that’s 40 hours per year per drone, or less than 1 hour per week. Given what these things cost, you’d expect they’d be in the air as much as possible. Of course, it could just be 160 hours they are willing to fess up to…..

The Real Michael says:

Now here’s my question: How much crime has been thwarted by the drone? I’m guessing zero. Its only possible use must be to surveillance persons/areas which the police have taken interest in.

“Well, that’s just peaches. Military-style technology deployed domestically without any official policy for its use. I feel so warm and fuzzy inside.”

While the government has been beefing up law enforcement with military-style tools and weaponry, they’ve been working to disarm the public. The media is using the tragedy in Newtown to further their anti-gun agenda. Every single kind of gun can kill, so the only possible reason they’re singling out semi-automatic weaponry is because they want to give law enforcement/military a tactical advantage against the citizenry.

People better realize what’s really going on — that is if they want to keep their freedoms.

Clint Fix (profile) says:


While I don’t at all agree that drones should be used domestically, having grown up in Mesa County, I might have a good guess as to why they use them. Outside of Grand Junction and Fruita, there is a lot of open desert space where a lot of drug related activity takes place. The area has a pretty big meth and a growing heroine problem and they’re probably working to stop some of it.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

US EULA: By accepting these terms of citizenship...

…you give up all rights to due process, constitutional protections, or even common decency. You agree that you have no rights, and we have the right to do whatever the fuck we want and you’ll fucking like it, bitchez.

i’m still trying to get my head around *how* breaking and entering your ‘castle’ (sic), planting bugs and/or video cameras is NOT ‘unreasonable search and seizure’ ? ? ?

the supposed ‘reasoning’ (which was essentially: ‘Well, we let law enforcement (sic) do whatever the fuck they want to do, shut up, citizen.’), is that it isn’t ‘obtrusive’, blah blah blah.
r u fucking kidding me ? ? ?

so, when -in the very near future- we have all but invisible nano-bugs and nano-bots, they can go EVERYWHERE and record EVERYTHING, ’cause -you know- you cain’t hardly not see’em anyways…
r u fucking kidding me ? ? ?

‘law enforcement’ are THE biggest violators of ‘the law’ (what a fucking joke) and the constitution…
game over, kampers

art guerrilla
aka ann archy

slick8086 says:

I don’t really get what the deal is. Why are people so worked up about so called “drones.” These are just jumped up remote controlled airplanes. Police have actual helicopters and airplanes and no one bitches about those.

I build R/C planes as a hobby and have been getting into the aerial photography part of it. An R/C plane can’t do more than a real plane or helicopter when it comes to surveillance, it can do considerably less.

weneedhelp (profile) says:

Re: Re:

These were designed to be used in war. Whenever you take something that was designed for war and use it at home it is a slippery slope. Next thing ya know they will be using LRAD here at … wait what? Oh. At least we dont see armored… what? Those too? Well at least we dont see guards with automatic weapons and flack jackets… really?

Where does it end?

slick8086 says:

Re: Re: Re:

>These were designed to be used in war.

Actually, no they weren’t. They were designed as toys and adapted for war. R/C planes were around for a long time before they began being used in military applications. The fact is for about $500 ANYONE can make pretty nice aerial photography platform with all kinds of autonomous automation.

Just Google DIY drones.

Anonymous Coward says:

Vague Sounding...

“somewhat vague-sounding “populated areas, heavily trafficked roads” or the open air above a large assembly of people.”

The FAA definition of these items are VERY VERY clear, just ask any pilot… But I do guess it did they right CYA by saying “Vague-Sounding.”

To be honest if these are the areas that they are not allowed to operate, then the drones are of little use other than possibly search and rescue, and looking for pot fields…

btr1701 (profile) says:


I really don’t get all the hand-wringing over drones, either domestically, or militarily overseas.

A drone can’t do anything that a piloted can’t do. We have police helicopters flying over populated areas, over freeways clogged with traffic, and over open-air stadiums all the time. Why is it any different for a drone to do these things?

Same with the military. A drone attack on the enemy is no different than the same attack flown by a person in a fighter jet. It’s just as accurate (or inaccurate, as the case may be) and the weaponry is the same. So why such outrage when it’s a drone that’s used?

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...