By Jordan Ferguson.
The Berkeley City Council approved a proposal by the City’s Peace and Justice Commission this week to impose a moratorium on drones within city limits. The one-year moratorium, which applies only to the Berkeley Police Department, will allow the City to study potential drone use by law enforcement agencies more thoroughly before deciding how to ultimately regulate the unmanned aerial vehicles. The Commission originally proposed a ban on drones in 2012, but decided on recommending a moratorium to allow the City more time to study the issue prior to enacting a permanent ban or any other long-term regulation.
The resolution focused on the privacy concerns inherent in law enforcement use of drones, citing the threat drones pose to the “constitutional rights of the American people, including the residents of Berkeley.” While Berkeley is not the first city in the country to take such action (four U.S. cities — Charlottesville, VA; Bonifacius, MN; Evanston, IL and Iowa City, IA — have banned drones outright, and several others have taken similar actions to begin the development of drone policies), it does signal that local governments’ willingness to remain on the sidelines in drone regulation may be coming to an end. Many local agencies have declined to regulate drones while awaiting directives from the state or federal government that may preempt any local decisions. However, with the FAA’s release of its proposed rules last week, it seems some local governments may now be prepared to enter the discussion of how best to regulate drones to ensure privacy and safety.
The moratorium, while less drastic than an outright ban, signals concern on the part of the City about the potential effect of allowing law enforcement agencies to use drone technology. The City could have chosen to allow drone use while it reviewed potential regulations, but chose instead to remove drones from law enforcement’s toolkit until it has made a more permanent determination. The issues surrounding law enforcement use of drones, from privacy concerns to more serious worries about constitutional violations, are complex and likely years from any clear resolution. Yet municipalities are entering a period where they can make their voices heard on domestic drone use – whether through commenting on the FAA’s proposed rules, or by taking action on their own – by considering the ways it might affect their communities and how to address those issues before problems arise. The array of regulatory options for local agencies considering development of a drone policy is vast and, at this point, all too frequently unclear. For some cities, though, the time to weigh in has finally arrived.
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