Skip to main content

Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio Delivers Opening Remarks at Forum on Police Use of Drones


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you all so much for being here and participating in today’s discussion.  I’d like to echo Director Keith in thanking Brian Dorow from the Department of Homeland Security and Chuck Wexler from the Police Executive Research Forum, and I’d also like to acknowledge Brendan Groves, Senior Counsel to the Deputy Attorney General, who provided guidance and expertise on the development of the forum.  Thanks, also, to a few other Department of Justice officials for joining us today: Matt Dummermuth, the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs; Jon Adler, the Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance; and Mark Champoux, the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy. 

Ever since humans began experimenting with flight, we have been fascinated by, and explored the many possible uses of, unmanned aerial vehicles.  As early as 1806, the British Royal Navy used kites to drop leaflets in French territory.  In 1849, the Austrian military used balloons to drop ordinance on the City of Venice.  Aerial photography is almost as old as photography itself, with the first aerial picture taken from a tethered balloon in France in 1858, and another in Boston in 1860.  Thirty years later, in 1889, Arthur Batut managed to launch a kite with a timed camera.

We have come a long way from these early balloon and kite technologies, and in recent years, the rapid development of emerging technologies has changed the way law enforcement agencies operate.  Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), or drones, rank as one of the most transformative new technological tools. 

Less than a decade ago, drones were expensive and often hard to use.  Now, drones are cheap, widely available, and relatively easy to operate. 

With these developments, recreational and commercial drone use is on the rise.  FAA recently estimated that there are 1.1 million recreational drones in the US.  By 2022, the FAA predicts that figure will more than double to 2.4 million.  Commercial drones will also see explosive growth.  By 2022, the FAA predicts the number of commercial drones will quadruple, growing from 110,000 to more than 450,000.  American innovation abounds in the UAS field, with current or proposed uses spanning from geological exploration to donuts delivery.  As policymakers and regulators, we can and must find ways to support the safe and productive use of UAS technology.

For law enforcement, the increasing availability of drones offers both promise and peril.  On one hand, drones bring “air support” within reach to nearly all law enforcement agencies—even those with limited budgets and personnel.  Drones are far less expensive to operate than helicopters or airplanes.  They can also fly in areas that traditional aircraft cannot, such as inside a home prior to a tactical assault.

It comes as no surprise that law enforcement and public safety agencies are now using drones in a growing number of ways, such as:

  • Accident reconstruction
  • Crime scene photography
  • Surveillance
  • Fugitive apprehension
  • Disaster response
  • Search and rescue
  • Fire hotspots

On the other hand, drones present new threats and challenges.  Overseas, ISIS, other terrorist groups, and criminal organizations use inexpensive drones to drop explosives and conduct reconnaissance.  Here in the homeland, criminals use drones to deliver narcotics across the southern border, drop contraband inside state and federal prisons, conduct illicit surveillance, and interfere with law enforcement operations.  Drones also present a significant threat to the critical infrastructure community and large public gatherings.   As law enforcement, we need to make better use of legal authorities to send a message that illicit and dangerous use of drones will not be tolerated.

The framework for this forum reflects the inherent duality of drones—their promise and peril. 

Today’s agenda focuses on the first topic:  the promise of drone technology for law enforcement and public safety personnel.  Experts will offer advice on developing a drone program designed to add operational value and—just as importantly—earn the public trust.

There are law enforcement agencies here that have been using drones for years.  We look forward to hearing their lessons learned and best practices, as well as the steps they took to build their program.

The second day of the forum will tackle the other side of the coin:  the malicious use of drones.

On that topic, you will hear from experts at DOJ and DHS in the emerging field of countering drones, known as Counter-UAS.   Among other topics, they will discuss: 

  • Key legislative authorities allowing federal law enforcement to counter drones and how that authority applies to state and local agencies;
  • The current national security threat, including threats posed to stadiums, airports, and critical infrastructure;
  • The technologies and tactics currently available to detect and disrupt drones; and
  • What the future holds for commercial drone use and counter-UAS technology.

Lastly, you’ll hear how international law enforcement agencies are responding to this threat, including the recent drone disruptions at the Gatwick and Heathrow airports.

The next two days promise to be both fascinating and productive.  You will come away from this conference with the tools necessary to unlock the potential of drone technology—and prevent its peril. 

Once again, thank you all for being here to discuss this important topic.

Updated February 20, 2019