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All Louisville police divisions to be equipped with drones

Three people looking at drone equipment on a table.
Roberto Roldan
LMPD IT manager Travis Eicher, left, showing Mayor Craig Greenberg, center, and police Chief Jackie Gwinn-Villaroel, right, the type of drones the department has acquired.

Every police division in Louisville will be equipped with drone technology, as part of a pilot program city officials announced Thursday.

Dozens of Louisville Metro Police Department officers will undergo Federal Aviation Administration training on how and when to use the small, camera-equipped drones. For the pilot program, each of LMPD’s eight divisions will have at least one unmanned aircraft.

The program grew out of efforts to address the use of ATVs and dirt bikes in Riverview Park and parts of the Louisville Loop in southwest Jefferson County, officials said. In April, two people were hit and killed by a person on an ATV while walking on the Loop.

LMPD Chief Jackie Gwinn-Villaroel said at a press conference Thursday that the department plans to test out the drones for search-and-rescue operations, surveying traffic collisions and getting a birds-eye view of hard-to-reach places, like the Loop.

“I’m super excited that we are in a space now that this city is embracing technology, but still holding us accountable for how we’re using it,” she said. “This is how we move our city forward.”

Gwinn-Villaroel said that every officer who uses a drone will be trained and certified by the FAA. The training and purchase of drones is expected to cost about $100,000. City leaders did not provide a timeline for implementing the program.

LMPD has been using drones “for a while,” Gwinn-Villaroel said. The pilot program will expand the operation. LMPD is one of an estimated 1,400 law enforcement agencies across the country that have started implementing drone technology into their daily operations.

Some civil liberties groups have expressed concerns about the increased surveillance of daily life in America. The ACLU sued Baltimore in 2020 over aerial surveillance that captured all daytime activities in a large swath of the city. A federal court ruled the program violated the Fourth Amendment.

Louisville officials stressed that officers will be restricted in when they can use drones, to ensure people’s privacy and constitutional rights.

The police department is expected to undergo reforms through a consent decree that the city is currently negotiating with federal officials. The Department of Justice released a report last year showing that Louisville police engage in discriminatory policing and violate residents’ civil rights.

According to LMPD’s Standard Operating Procedures, the drones “will not be used for the purpose of investigative surveillance” and drone operators “will make every effort not to record locations and persons that are not the subject of the mission.”

The appropriate uses for the drones, per LMPD policy, are:

  • Documenting crime scenes and vehicle collisions
  • Hazardous material (HAZMAT) incidents
  • Search and rescue operations
  • Barricaded subjects and SWAT Team call-outs
  • Disaster responses
  • Searches for fleeing suspects
  • Special event overwatch
  • Any other incidents approved by the Chief of Police, or his/her designee

In response to questions from reporters, Gwinn-Villaroel said LMPD would work on a policy for releasing flight data publicly.
Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg said the city has recently invested in additional lighting and license plate readers at public parks to help police catch people who commit crimes. But he said it’s not enough.

“We need more technology to help us monitor activity that threatens public safety, like street racing or people riding ATVs and dirt bikes in other spaces that are reserved for pedestrians, that are supposed to be safe spaces for people to enjoy,” he said.

Greenberg and Gwinn-Villaroel were joined at Thursday’s press conference by police officers and supervisors involved in the pilot program. Democratic Metro Council Members Ben Reno-Weber, Rick Blackwell and Cindi Fowler of Districts 8, 12 and 14 also spoke in support.

Roughly half of the $100,000 cost of the program will come from council members’ discretionary spending, known as neighborhood development funds. LMPD will cover the rest from its general budget.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.

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