Drones aren’t yet multiplying in Lawrence, but the people who are against them appear to be.
Five area civil rights and political organizations have banded together to ask city commissioners to make Lawrence one of the first cities in the nation to pass an ordinance limiting the ability of police or other city departments to use drones.
“The concern would be having drones in place 24 hours a day for surveillance purposes,” said Ben Jones, a leader of the Lawrence-based Kansans for Responsible Drone Use. “That may not happen tomorrow, but we also understand that technology is advancing.”
Mayor Mike Dever said he’s willing to consider a policy, although he points out that the city doesn’t own any drones and doesn’t plan to in the foreseeable future.
“If we’re interested in having drones, then we probably would need to have a policy,” Dever said. “I personally don’t foresee any application for drones that I would see as a reasonable extension of city oversight or law enforcement activities.”
Jones’ group asked city commissioners in May to consider a city policy. Commissioners said they would take the matter under advisement, but it hasn’t yet appeared again for further discussion. Now, Jones is hoping a broad-based coalition of groups asking for a policy will spur action. Jones is presenting a letter of support from the Douglas County Libertarians, the Douglas County Republican Party, the Lawrence Coalition for Peace and Justice, MadreLawrence, and Kansas University’s Young Americans for Liberty.
“We’ve spent the summer trying to build support among community groups, and it really is support across the political spectrum,” Jones said.
Jana Rea, chairwoman of the Douglas County Republican Party, said the idea of a local policy makes sense given the national news about how contentious surveillance programs by the federal government have become.
“In this climate, we’re finding out about liberties we have lost after the fact,” Rea said. “I think it is real prudent to put a policy in place now.”
A local policy would not hold any sway over how the federal government chooses to use drones in federal airspace. Proponents aren’t asking for the local policy to apply to potential commercial use of drones either.
“In Kansas I know they have been talked about as a tool for farmers to
survey their crops,” Jones said. “If people want to use them in ways that don’t violate privacy, that is not our concern.”
The groups are asking the city to approve an ordinance that includes:
• a moratorium on any city drone usage until guidelines governing their use have been developed at the state level;
• a ban on the city ever using weaponized drones;
• a ban on the city using drones to conduct surveillance and gather evidence, “except in response to an emergency where lives are at risk.”
The idea of the city’s police force having drones equipped with tear gas or grenade launchers, two examples cited by the group, may be difficult to comprehend now but isn’t out of the realm of possibility, supporters of the policy said.
“It just feels like we are in a surreal environment in terms of what I can envision now,” Rea said. “I don’t put anything outside my scope of imagination.”
Multiple media reports indicated Charlottesville, Va., became the first city in the country to pass a policy limiting drone use. But Jones said Lawrence would still be somewhat unique in passing a policy.
“We have a chance to be a leader both in the state and the country,” Jones said.
Dever said he would meet with Jones in the next couple of weeks, and then make a determination about whether to place discussion of a policy on a future City Commission agenda.