Alone, in the middle of a parking lot, sat a lifeless drone.

Officially known as a “small unmanned aircraft system,” the drone is the latest high-tech surveillance tool that the New Orleans Police Department plans to put to work. 

Ironically, it sat in a lot near the NOPD Police Academy on Press Drive. The pace of recruits coming through the academy isn’t high enough to keep up with the department’s retirements and departures. The hope is that the little black drone could fill some gaps in NOPD’s dwindling human ranks.

Critics like the anti-surveillance community group Eye on Surveillance have raised concerns. Drones, they say, have the same potential to exacerbate the harm done to communities as poorly trained street cops —  invade the privacy of citizens, harass people in low-income neighborhoods, and stifle free speech when used to monitor street protests. Some also were suspicious that the timeline to comment on the draft drone policy fell during a holiday-week, because it could reduce the amount of community feedback. Given the pushback, NOPD extended the period for several days to Dec. 1.

To possibly alleviate some of those concerns, top NOPD brass invited reporters and concerned citizens to a Tuesday-evening drone demonstration in the Police Academy parking lot. 

An NOPD officer grabbed a remote control, putting life into the lone drone, which went whirring into the sky. Nearby, a TV screen set up on a table showed the footage it was picking up. 

An NOPD officer demonstrates the drone. (La’Shance Perry/The Lens) Credit: La'Shance Perry / Government & Politics – The Lens

Onlookers began wondering about how police drones might fit into the everyday life of New Orleans. For instance, would they become a regular presence hovering over Carnival parades and Sunday-afternoon second-lines? 

Not to worry, said newly appointed police Superintendent Anne Kirkpatrick, as she slid behind a podium to dispel concerns. 

“I believe in privacy rights,” Kirkpatrick said. “And so do your NOPD officers and staff. Privacy is to be taken very seriously — it is constitutionally protected.” She pledged that the department’s drones would be deployed strategically, “in very limited and select circumstances.”

NOPD Chief Anne Kirkpatrick assures the group that NOPD officers take privacy very seriously. (La’Shance Perry/The Lens) Credit: La'Shance Perry / Government & Politics – The Lens

The only difference between drones and other departmental technology was altitude, said NOPD Deputy Chief Jonette Williams. “Look at it as a body-worn camera in the sky,” she said, noting that drones might be used to assist with SWAT missions, crime-scene reconstruction and “situational awareness,” a broader, catch-all term that has also been used to describe the role of the Real-Time Crime Center’s vast network of crime cameras. 

The two chiefs emphasized that, while they were still revising the department’s drone policy, they were committed to transparency and open to public input.

To that, several people responded, with questions. 

A self-identified drone pilot in the crowd asked if the drones would have blade protectors and be clearly identified as police property. After a recent storm, she’d caused mild panic on her block when she flew her own small drone over her roof to look at damage, she said.

“My neighbor came running around, he’s like, ‘Somebody’s flying a drone! Should we shoot it down?’ And I’m like ‘No, baby, that’s mine,” she said.

After hearing the woman’s story, Williams said the department would definitely take her suggestions, and others, into consideration.

A man who identified himself as Citizen Mike warns the NOPD drone pilots not to get “malicious” or “cute.” (La’Shance Perry) Credit: La'Shance Perry / Government & Politics – The Lens

A man, who later asked to be identified by the alias “Citizen Mike,” asked for a show of hands, to identify the department’s drone pilots in the crowd to be identified. Several NOPD officers raised their hands. 

“It’s not just like getting on a computer playing Call of Duty,” Mike warned the cops. “I just need to know that these pilots don’t decide to get malicious, or get cute when they travel these drones. Because dudes in the hood, they don’t take too kindly to something like that flying over.”

Several people nodded in agreement.

Seated in the front row, near the podium, City Councilman Eugene Green – a regular proponent of expanding NOPD surveillance tech – assured the group that the City Council would provide oversight and scrutiny for the department’s drone use. “I am very pleased with what I have seen as a city councilmember relative to the police department’s use of technology,” Green said. 

But Citizen Mike said Green shouldn’t be so quick to endorse something he hadn’t yet seen in action.

“How can you pontificate that this is solid?” Mike asked. “You haven’t seen it.” Green responded by accusing Mike of trying to “turn things a certain way.” 

City Councilman Eugene Green has high hopes from the NOPD drone program. (La’Shance Perry/Then Lens) Credit: La'Shance Perry / Government & Politics – The Lens

Others in the crowd mused about the potential loss of privacy, across the city. “What if we don’t want drones, period?” someone in the back asked. “Is there an option not to have drones?”

Williams demurred. NOPD had already purchased the drones, she said, and were planning on using them. “It’s sort of like a vehicle,” Williams said. “If we purchased a certain type of vehicle, you may say, ‘Why did the police buy this type of vehicle instead of another type of vehicle?’”

Basically, the NOPD did want public input about how to best use the aircraft. But they were not asking the public’s permission. 

“What I’m getting at is, yes, we will still use the drones,” Williams said.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...