D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and Metropolitan Police Chief Pamela A. Smith announced the launch of a new Falcon 1 helicopter and drone technology program on June 24, 2024. (Sam P.K. Collins/Washington Informer)

Despite concerns about infringements on civil liberties, the Bowser administration spent much of this year advancing comprehensive public safety legislation and developing tools to enhance the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD)’s response to crime. 

In the latest chapter of that saga, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and Metropolitan Police Chief Pamela A. Smith announced the  launch of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) program. 

“A quick deployable eye in the sky will ensure safety for all,” Smith said on June 24 during the unveiling of the drone technology at a location across the street from Audi Field in Southwest. “Specially trained officers may leverage this for search warrants and situations that reduce confrontation or provide critical information when officers are entering particular areas.” 

This program makes MPD one of more than 1,500 police departments across the country that use drone technology.  

On Monday, Smith told reporters that the five drones currently under MPD possession won’t be used as first responders, for facial recognition, nor with weapons capabilities. They will instead support the retrieval of missing persons, reconstruction of major traffic scenes, and crowd management at large-scale gatherings.

They will also be used for tactical and situational purposes, such as barricades, Smith added. 

Smith went on to emphasize that she engaged community members, including those living in Wards 7 and 8,  over the last few weeks about the drone program. 

The most recent meeting, she told The Informer, took place at the Office of Unified Communications (OUC) headquarters on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in Southeast on the evening of June 20. 

“People are excited about utilizing technology. The public wants us to drive down crime,” Smith said. “It won’t be in the air but for designated reasons… In our policy, there are accountability measures. There’s a checklist to make sure every aspect can be addressed. Accidents have to be documented.” 

As outlined on MPD’s site, accountability measures include pre-flight checks, post-flight debriefings and documentation of operational activities. 

UAS’ launch comes just months after MPD unveiled the Real-Time Crime Center, a physical space from which MPD personnel analyze data from CCTV cameras and emergency calls to improve crime prevention efforts. 

Bowser administration officials credited these tools, among other initiatives, with the 27% year-to-date decrease in violent crime, as recorded by MPD. 

The drones also accompany the purchase of a new Air Support Unit helicopter that, along with the drones,  will send high-resolution images to the Real-Time Crime Center. While the new Falcon 1 helicopter can enter restricted airspace within seconds of contacting federal authorities, those areas — which include the White House, U.S. Capitol, and U.S. Naval Observatory — remain part of a No Drones Zone, as mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Each of the five drones cost between $15,000 and $16,000. Nearly 20 certified drone operators have gone through an internal 40-hour MPD training that aligns with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. 

Fiscal Year 2025 budget allocations will go toward “civilianizing” some of the drone operator positions, what MPD officials call efforts to better leverage its resources. Other investments during that fiscal year include 200 new CCTV cameras and 47 additional license plate readers. 

An MPD spokesperson said that Smith met with advisory neighborhood commissioners, citizens advisory councils, Community Engagement Academy alumni and other stakeholders in the days leading up to the launch of the drone program.

Drone Discussions: Much of the Community Seeks Clarity 

In the coming weeks, MPD precinct commanders will make the rounds at community meetings to further promote the UAS program. Community members are also encouraged  to reach out to MPD with questions.

Karen Gaal, an alumna of the Community Engagement Academy, said that she and other academy alumni met with Smith on June 20. She’s scheduled to meet with Smith, once again, on June 27 in her capacity as the Third District Community Advisory Council chairperson. 

Karen Gaal, Third District Community Advisory Council chairperson and an alumna of the Community Engagement Academy (Facebook)

As Gaal recalled, the majority of the alumni who participated in a focus group supported the drone program after a robust discussion about the positive and potentially negative aspects of its implementation. 

The dialogue, she said, touched on various scenarios, like the January 6, 2021 attack of the U.S. Capitol. 

Gaal also pointed out that participants explored the possibility of civil liberties violations and asked about whether residents would be able to access drone footage, akin to what’s recorded on police body-worn cameras. 

“There was a considerable amount of input provided to Chief Smith,” Gaal said, commending the police chief for her insistence on engaging the community. “She took notes and was open to suggestions. When I said it was a well-rounded discussion where we looked at all sides, that actually did occur.” 

An MPD official speaking on background said that drone footage wouldn’t be subject to the same rule as police body-worn camera footage. 

While the Ward 8 advisory neighborhood chairpersons who met with Metropolitan Police Chief Smith on June 20 learned about the drone technology program, the announcement, as one chairperson said, left much to be desired. 

“The drone information was literally dropped at the end,” said the Rev. Wendy Hamilton, chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8D, which includes the Bellevue neighborhood. “It was kind of random and we didn’t have time to digest it.” 

The Rev. Wendy Hamilton is a candidate for the D.C. shadow senator seat. (Courtesy photo)
The Rev. Wendy Hamilton, chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8D (Courtesy photo)

Hamilton counted among the less-than-a-dozen elected officials who attended the meeting at OUC. The meeting, months in the making, was originally meant for Ward 8 advisory neighborhood commission chairs. 

While a last-minute change opened the meeting to all Ward 8 commissioners, many weren’t given advanced notice, Hamilton said. 

For more than an hour, Smith spoke to the commissioners about the reduction in crime and engaged them in discussion about their concerns. When it came to the dialogue about drones, Hamilton said she questioned whether MPD had data available from other jurisdictions about the tool’s effectiveness in combating crime. 

As she recounted to The Informer, she had no idea at the time that MPD already had plans in motion for the drones. 

“If Chief Smith had already decided on it, she should’ve just told us that,” Hamilton said. “If constituents ask us questions, and I don’t have the full information, it puts us at a disadvantage.” 

Like Hamilton, ANC 8A Chair Jamila White said she wanted more information about the specifics of the drone program. 

“I don’t understand how it’s going to work and what it’s specifically capturing,” White told The Informer. “It helps the community to understand [that] and see some data [about] how it’s worked in other communities. Are the drones looking for crime? Are they going to be concentrated on certain apartment complexes? There’s a lot of questions.” 

White, whose constituency includes Downtown Anacostia, entered OUC headquarters on June 20 eager to relay residents’ concerns about police accountability, and how to bolster officer community engagement. 

With months having passed by since the passage of the Secure D.C. Omnibus Amendment Act, White also said she wanted to convey frustrations about crime happening in front of police officers.  

With another meeting in the works, White expressed her desire to dive deeper into the underlying causes of crime.  

“There are things happening with agencies that you could fix to a certain extent but we want to hear how you’re going to fix it,” White said. “We didn’t really expect to go deeper given the time allotted. We realized what happened in terms of some of the commissioners not getting the message. We could organize another meeting in the next two weeks and that might be an opportunity to go deeper.”

Sam P.K. Collins has nearly 20 years of journalism experience, a significant portion of which he gained at The Washington Informer. On any given day, he can be found piecing together a story, conducting...

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