Portland law enforcement will soon have a new method of policing the city: aerial drones, which they say will be used to survey crash and crime scenes.

On Wednesday, Portland City Council approved the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) to spend up to $80,000 from the PPB budget on a dozen unmanned aerial systems (UAS), most commonly referred to as drones. Police say the small, flying cameras can help provide visual scoping and mapping of incident areas in less time than traditional photography and video methods.

The bureau's plan is to launch a year-long pilot program for the drones, starting with PPB’s traffic and explosives division.

Included in the list of intended uses for the drones:

  • Documenting major crash scenes and post-crash vehicle damage
  • Search and rescue efforts
  • Surveil suspicious items like explosives from a distance
  • Help record scenes during emergencies or disasters, like a building collapse, to assess damage and risks
  • Help find suspects believed to be armed, including in hostage situations, with approval from critical incident commander

However, critics of the program suspect the new drone program could also be used for more nefarious purposes.

The acquisition of drones are drawing concern from Portland Copwatch, a police accountability advocacy group that's been critical of PPB's past use of surveillance technology. These critics and others fear law enforcement's use of drones could extend beyond simple crash site surveillance, and into violations of citizens' privacy and safety.

"Today's ordinance implies that this is a 'buy first, figure out the problems later' situation," Marc Poris of Portland Copwatch told city commissioners during a March 22 council meeting, when the ordinance was first considered. "We do not want to see PPB obtain drones saying, 'Trust us. This is only for accident investigations and hostage situations,' only to find ourselves down the line with robot-involved shootings of people who may or may not be in mental health crisis."

Addressing concerns about the scope of their use, PPB Sgt. Jim Defrain said the drones won’t be used for general surveillance.

“There are significant limitations on the use of UAS by law enforcement in Oregon law,” Sgt. Defrain told the Mercury. “Our pilot project will be governed by a [standard operating procedure] that follows, but is more restrictive than Oregon law.... [Officers] are specifically restricted from use for indiscriminate surveillance or crowd control events, absent a life safety critical incident such as an active shooter.”

PPB says drones are widely used by other neighboring law enforcement agencies, including police departments in Columbia and Washington counties.

The bureau already has a drone, purchased in 2019-20, that has never been used. Defrain said the previous device was intended for traffic crash reconstruction, but shortly after the purchase, PPB’s traffic division budget was slashed and the project was tabled. The older model will now be brought back into use under the new pilot program.

Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell said drones will reduce time spent by officers at crash scenes and reduce inconveniences to the public after major incidents.

The year-long pilot program is scheduled to begin in the next two months.