News Flash

Sheriff's Office News

Posted on: April 3, 2023

Sheriff’s Office Launches New Drone Program and Policy

Sheriff's Office News Flash

SAN JUAN COUNTY, WA. April 3, 2023 – The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office is introducing a new resource to assist in better serving and protecting community members. The agency now has two Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) (commonly referred to as drones) providing advanced technology to assist the Sheriff’s Office in the completion of its mission to protect the lives and property of everyone in our community.

The main focus of the Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) is for search and rescue operations and scene documentation for major incidents necessitating detailed documentation. With many heavily wooded areas and large amounts of surrounding water, this system will be extremely valuable in locating missing persons, downed aircrafts, or vessels in distress on the water.

The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office has no interest in random, unwarranted, surveillance of fellow community members (absent a warrant signed by a judge for a lawful purpose), violating constitutional and privacy rights, or violating Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. 

A PDF copy of the complete San Juan County Sheriff’s Office Policy 616 Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Operations is available to the public on the Sheriff’s Office website. Several sections of the policy, detailing drone use, privacy rights, and more, are outlined below.

616.2 POLICY

Unmanned aerial systems may be utilized to enhance the office's mission of protecting lives and property and assist in appropriate investigations when other means and resources are not available or are less effective. Any use of a UAS will be in strict accordance with constitutional and privacy rights and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations.

Small, unmanned aircraft systems can provide law enforcement incident commanders with essential information to help manage and resolve critical incidents while reducing risk to community members and deputies.  The San Juan County Sheriff's Office recognizes the public's concern for privacy and other constitutionally protected rights should these systems be misused.  This policy has been crafted to guide the San Juan County Sheriff's Office during the use of these systems for legitimate law enforcement purposes while protecting community members' rights to privacy and freedom from unauthorized government intrusion.

616.3 PRIVACY  

The use of the UAS potentially involves privacy considerations. Absent a warrant or exigent circumstances, operators and observers shall adhere to FAA altitude regulations and shall not intentionally record or transmit images of any location where a person would have a reasonable expectation of privacy (such as inside a residence or other intimate location). Reasonable efforts shall be made to minimize recording or transmitting images of uninvolved persons. Operators and observers shall take reasonable precautions to avoid inadvertently recording or transmitting images of areas where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. Reasonable precautions can include, for example, deactivating or turning imaging devices away from such areas or persons during UAS operations.

616.5  USE OF UAS

Only authorized operators who have completed the required training shall be permitted to operate the UAS.  Systems shall be deployed only when such use is appropriate in the performance of official law enforcement duties, during public safety missions, or for department sanctioned training. Use of vision enhancement technology (e.g., thermal and other imaging equipment not generally available to the public) is permissible in viewing areas only where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy or when in compliance with a search warrant or court order. In all other instances, legal counsel should be consulted.

Small, unmanned aircraft systems may be deployed during unplanned emergency incidents or during planned operations for the following purposes:  

1. Situational Awareness – to assist incident commanders and other decision makers with understanding the nature, scale, and scope of a public safety incident, and for planning and coordinating an effective response.

2. Search and Rescue – to assist with missing person investigations, AMBER Alerts, Silver Alerts, and other search & rescue operations.

3. Tactical Deployment during Emergencies – to support the deployment of deputies and equipment in emergency situations (e.g., incidents involving hostages, barricaded subjects, active shooters, support for large-scale tactical operations, and temporary perimeter security operations during in-progress crimes).

4. Scene Documentation – to document a crime scene, accident scene, or other major incident scene (e.g., disaster management, post critical incident response, large-scale forensic scene) either in a public area or, after obtaining a search warrant, in non-public areas.

5. Service of High-Risk Search Warrants – to reduce the risk to deputies, civilians, and suspects by providing information about the location and disposition of suspects, uninvolved occupants, obstacles, and the layout of structures when planning and executing search warrant operations.

6. Public demonstrations authorized by the Sheriff or Undersheriff. (Conducted by the Sheriff’s Office to demonstrate capabilities, training, etc, of the UAS)

616.6  PROHIBITED USE

The UAS video equipment shall not be used to conduct random surveillance.

UAS-recorded data will not be collected, disseminated, or retained solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the U.S. Constitution, such as the First Amendment's protections of religion, speech, press, assembly, and the redress of grievances (e.g., protests, demonstrations).

The use of UAS and the collection, use, dissemination, or retention of UAS-recorded data shall not be solely based on actual or perceived individual characteristics (e.g., race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, age, or gender), to harass, intimidate, or discriminate against any individual or group, or to conduct personal business of any type.

The UAS shall not be equipped with:

*Lethal or non-lethal weapons.

*Any device that captures or intercepts personal electronic information or communications transmitted via cell  phone or any other electronic means unless specifically authorized under RCW 9.73

*Facial recognition technology which can be used to identify specific persons.   This does not include technology in which the UAS recognizes the face of the operator as a security measure.  This also does not include technology which can be used to identify an image as a non-specific human being vs. another object (i.e. an algorithm that recognizes a human form in a forest).

A PDF copy of the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office Policy 616 Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Operations has been placed on the SJCSO website.  Read the full policy here.

Contact: Eric Peter, Sheriff, ericp@sanjuanco.com, 360-378-4151

About San Juan County’s Sheriff’s Office   

The mission of the San Juan County Sheriff's Office Protect the lives, rights, and property of all people through crime prevention and enforcement of the law with equity and dignity for all. The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office is committed to collaborating with fellow community members, partner agencies, and community organizations to create a safer environment for everyone. We are honored and proud to serve all members of our community with equity and dignity. The Sheriff’s Office is located at 96 Second Street, Friday Harbor, WA 98250. For more information about San Juan County’s Sheriff’s Office, visit https://www.sanjuanco.com/344/Sheriff

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