PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Portland Police Bureau formally presented a request to the Portland City Council on March 22 to spend $80,000 of the bureau’s budget on drone equipment, which it says will allow for more efficient crime scene investigations.
PPB Sgt. James Defrain, who heads PPB’s bomb squad, told city commissioners that the use of drones can improve civilian and officer safety, de-escalate potential standoff situations, reduce the number of officers needed to investigate crime scenes and cut down traffic closure times on Portland’s interstate highways, which Defrain said are slowed by PPB’s current crash investigation methods.
“These tools have been proven throughout the nation to efficiently document complex scenes and enhance safety by providing critical information from a safe location,” Defrain said.
The proposed purchase would be for “short-range” drone equipment, which PPB is referring to as “small unmanned aerial systems,” that would aid in its investigations. PPB previously purchased DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone equipment in 2020 to document traffic collision scenes. However, PPB has yet to deploy any drones in the field.
Mayor Ted Wheeler showed support for PPB’s proposed drone use, which would begin as a one-year pilot project. The project, Defrain said, would determine the effectiveness of the officer-piloted drones. PPB said that its drone use would also be published on the city’s website to improve transparency.
“It’s going to save time, it’s going to save money, it is a far more effective tool amongst many tools that we have around investigations,” Wheeler said. “We’re a late adapter compared to other law enforcement agencies around us. That’s not your fault. I’m glad to see that we’re moving in this direction, particularly as we talk about the cost of personnel and the difficulty of hiring people … It makes sense that we would adapt technologies that can help us out. This is certainly one.”
Local citizen Marc Poris of the local police accountability group Portland Cop Watch presented concerns to city commissioners that PPB could use the drones for unethical or not-yet-considered purposes. He also referenced the city council’s own decision to pass a resolution in February to keep a watchful eye on its own surveillance capabilities.
“We are deeply concerned about this proposal to spend $80,000 on police surveillance drones,” Porous said. “Just last month the city passed a resolution requiring that scrutiny be given to surveillance technologies to ensure they will not [disproportionately] impact certain populations and that they will not intrude on people’s privacy.”
Defrain said that, per PPB’s own procedures, officers are prohibited from flying drones for crowd control, mass surveillance or for the use of facial-recognition technology. The desired drones, he said, also have “extremely limited” flight times and cannot carry items heavier than a cell phone.
“At their core [drones] are simply remote cameras that allow us to safely gather information and document evidence in a way that we are unable to now,” he said.
Following Wednesday’s non-emergency discussion, the purchase request will be reintroduced at a future meeting where commissioners will consider approving the drone purchase.
The $80,000 request isn’t the first eye-popping figure that PPB has presented to commissioners this year. In February, the Portland City Council approved PPB’s request to spend $1.5 million on a new patrol plane.