U.S. Department of Justice issues UAS policy guidelines

By Emily Aasand | May 28, 2015

The U.S. Department of Justice issued an agency-wide policy guidance on the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that will set standards and help manage use of UAS by the department and its components.

In recent years, UAS have been used to support kidnapping investigations, search and rescue operations, drug interdictions, and fugitive investigations. The aircraft have potential to provide law enforcement with additional flexibility and yield life-saving benefits, according to the DOJ. UAS also have the potential to be cost-efficient in a time of shrinking government resources.

The policy also applies all instances in which department components use UAS to support federal agencies and/or state and local law enforcement agencies. “This guidance will help ensure that the department continues to carry out its law enforcement and national security missions while respecting individuals’ privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties,” the document stated.

The guidelines add that prior to using UAS, department personnel must assess the relative intrusiveness of the proposed use of UAS, and balance it against the particular investigative need. In addition, UAS may only be used in connection with properly authorized investigations and activities.

The Policy Act contains provisions on unauthorized use and disclosure of information about individuals, and imposes civil penalties on agencies and criminal penalties on agency personnel for violations of applicable requirements. According to the DOJ, under this policy, the department “shall not retain information collected using UAS that may contain personally identifiable information for more than 180 days unless retention of the information is determined to be necessary for an authorized purpose or is maintained in a system of records covered by the Privacy Act.”

The department promotes accountability by requiring its personnel to accept responsibility for the actions they undertake. Department personnel whose responsibility it is to manage, supervise, maintain and/or fly UAS must receive training on this policy and underlying policies, according to the DOJ.

Finally, the policy requires each component that uses UAS to designate a point of contact through which field offices will report the information to the component’s headquarters and department leadership on the use of UAS on an ongoing basis.  

The guidance is a result of various discussions and research. Meetings will be held at least twice a year to ensure that the department has the appropriate balance between its law enforcement and national security missions and respect for civil rights and civil liberties, the DOJ said. 


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