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How UAS can help law enforcement, campus public safety manage mass gatherings

12 Feb 2019 2:29 PM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

Editor's note: This article is from the International Public Safety Association’s UAS eBook

By Mark Wesley, Member of IPSA’s UAS Committee

University and college campuses have traditionally been venues used by students and others to protest, demonstrate and engage in other activities under their First Amendment rights. Managing the security and safety during these large gatherings is primarily a function of law enforcement officers and campus public safety personnel. However, these events can quickly evolve, the size of the crowd can increase rapidly, and the peaceful mood can swing to civil disturbance, which will ultimately stress the limited resources available to most campus public safety departments.

UAS offers a cost-effective and safe force multiplier. A bird’s eye view live stream of the situation can quickly provide information on crowd size, movement, access path, and other elements that can assist campus public safety make decisions on how to manage the event.

Mass gatherings and UAS

UAS are deployed at many events to help with security and management. The 2018 Coachella Music Festival organizers and local law enforcement utilized surveillance UAS as part of the security measures for the event. Indio, California police officers used the UAS to monitor security and traffic.

Following the Route 91 Harvest Music festival shooting in October 2017, Las Vegas police used UAS to monitor crowds, identify suspicious packages and track any unusual activity on the Strip during New Year’s Eve celebrations.

The Air Support Unit of the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department used UAS to monitor an immigrant rights rally at the Contra County West County Detention Facility.

While UAS may seem an efficient and easy application, there are many considerations that need to be addressed prior to flight operations in support of law enforcement. A few of these basic considerations include regulatory compliance, integration with incident command, and privacy issues.

Policy considerations

Campus law enforcement needs to be familiar with applicable federal, state and local laws and policies to determine if UAS can be used. Has the agency met FAA requirements for operation under a Certificate of Waiver/Authorization (COA) or under Part 107? 

According to the FAA, federal, state and local government offices can fly UAS to support specific missions, under either the FAA’s Part 107 rule or by obtaining a COA. Be aware that some states have legislation restricting the use of UAS by law enforcement agencies. Can the operation be warrantless?

Before any deployment, agency leadership needs to decide if the use of UAS is the best way to fulfill the mission. If the decision is to use UAS to support the mission, then the specific details of the operation need to be identified prior to deployment and captured in an incident action plan. Adherence to incident command protocols is essential for successful UAS flight operations during events. Setting the conditions for flight operations, establishing the chain of command for authorization of flights and ensuring notification to ground elements of the operation are just some of the elements that need to be planned out prior to deployment.

UAS operation can also impact the campus community’s perception of the agency’s transparency and trust. Some people will view the use of UAS as a violation of their privacy and a restriction on their First Amendment rights. The agency needs to be prepared to proactively explain the need for improved safety and why UAS supports that effort. One way to accomplish this is to engage the campus community in the process as the program is being developed and to publicize the agency’s policies regarding UAS use, collection and storage of information. It will be an on-going debate over when and how law enforcement uses UAS.

However, UAS can be an incredibly effective tool in conducting situational assessment and proving valuable information to help protect both law enforcement personnel and participants during mass gathering events.

About the Author

Mark Wesley has more than 30 years of progressive experience as an emergency management professional, with a focus on program development, policy analysis, training and exercises. He is currently the Emergency Management Director at Eastern Michigan University and previously spent 22 years with the Michigan State Police Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division. He is the principal manager of MHW Consulting LLC, founded in 2011, a veteran-owned consultancy company that provides comprehensive emergency management services.


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