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New rule from Fla. governor grounds PD use of some drones

Gov. Ron DeSantis says police must stop using DJI drones, but police say banning them risks officer safety


Sam Navarro

By Lawrence Mower
Miami Herald

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Police departments across Florida are shelving millions of dollars in aerial drones because of a new Gov. Ron DeSantis administration rule that takes effect Wednesday.

In its latest attempt to stamp out foreign influence in Florida, the DeSantis administration is forbidding government agencies — including police, firefighters and mosquito control districts — from using drones manufactured by China-based Da Jiang Innovations, or DJI, by far the most popular drones in the world.

Police and other agencies have purchased an estimated $200 million in DJI drones over the years, according to one lawmaker, but under the rule, they can only use drones made by a handful of “approved manufacturers,” most of which are based in the U.S. The rule prohibits buying drones from a company in a “foreign country of concern.”

Many departments have already grounded their fleets, but they told lawmakers they’ve found the Florida-approved replacements far more expensive, much less capable, and in some cases dangerous. One approved drone caught fire in a deputy’s patrol vehicle, one law enforcement official testified.

The decision has infuriated some lawmakers, including Sen. Tom Wright, R-New Smyrna Beach, who accused a DeSantis official last month of producing no evidence that the drones pose a security risk.

“I’m not going to let one officer risk his life or her life because somebody thinks that these things talk to China,” Wright said during a Senate committee hearing last month. “I cannot imagine what China would really want to see when we pull over a DUI, when we stop a speeding car, when we arrest somebody for an outstanding warrant.”

Wright, a retired businessman and former K-9 officer, said he’s made it his personal mission “to get these DJIs back up and flying.” He sponsored SB 1514 this session to push back the state’s deadline and give police more time to replace their Chinese-made drones, but the legislation has yet to get a hearing.

The outcry from police and lack of explanation from the DeSantis administration has some lawmakers questioning the rule.

“Every single officer here can have a DJI drone at home but not on the job,” Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, said last month. “That seems, and smells, really political to me.”

In 2021, Wright sponsored legislation that set standards for the use of drones by police and other government entities. The bill also required the state to come up with a list of approved drone manufacturers for state agencies and local governments. Wright said it was never his intent to ban drones that “law enforcement has confidently told me pose no threat.” But the administration’s list of approved drone manufacturers, announced Dec. 12, did not include DJI — by far the leader in commercial-use drones and widely used by police across the state.

A more comprehensive rule, effective Wednesday, bans the government use of all drones produced by a company based in a “foreign country of concern,” which includes China.

The Dec. 12 announcement gave police and governments until Jan. 1 to stop using drones not included on the list.

Many, but not all, complied. Enforcement of the rule doesn’t start until Wednesday. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office shelved 19 of its 25 drones. The Broward County Sheriff’s Office shelved its 63 DJI drones. All 31 of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office’s drones were shelved, as were all seven of the Tampa Police Department’s drones.

Miami-Dade police have also shelved their Chinese-made drones. St. Petersburg police and the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office don’t use Chinese-made drones, and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t use any drones, according to spokespeople.

DJI drones a ‘godsend’

Cheaper than flying a helicopter and safer than pursuing suspects down an alley, police said that drones have become integral to their police departments.

During last month’s committee hearing, officers and supervisors said drones have helped pursue criminals, warned officers of armed suspects, identified Alzheimer’s patients and missing people, and even flown into a home to check on an armed, barricaded suspect.

They said the drones even won over skeptics among their ranks.

“They took away the fun of law enforcement, which was chasing bad guys,” Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Col. Robert Allen told lawmakers. “But until we had some misfortunes happen in Florida, and around the state, I came to warm up to the use of drones greatly. … You can’t measure what these drones have brought to officer safety.”

DJI drones in particular have been a “godsend,” Orlando police Sgt. David Cruz said.

Their replacements from the approved list are inferior, and in some cases dangerous, Cruz and others testified.

“In one year and a half, we had five failures of the manufacturers on the list. DJI, none,” Cruz said. “That’s going to put us in danger, our officers in danger, and the public in danger, when these drones continue to fall out of the sky.”

Collier County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Meagan Kitchenhoff said the American-made drones can’t fly at night.

“The infrared, the camera, is just not safe for us to use,” she said.

Allen said one of the state-approved drones caught fire while unplugged in a Palm Beach County Sheriff deputy’s car, forcing the deputy to pull over and drag out the carpet and flaming object on the side of the road.

“Our drone operators do not want to park these drones in their cars, in their garages, in their homes,” he said. “We’ve never had one issue with the DJIs since our inception.”

Florida a ‘high-value target’

Department of Management Services Secretary Pedro Allende cited decisions by the Department of Defense, the Interior Department and other federal agencies, which have banned DJI and other Chinese-made drones over the potential for spying.

“As a state, we’re a high-value target,” Allende said. “Florida has troves of information that our adversaries want on both the civilian and military sides.”

But Allende couldn’t articulate how, exactly, the drones were able to transmit confidential information to China.

“Have you any proof that you can share with this committee?” Wright asked. “You don’t have it, or you would have provided it to me months ago.”

Wright questioned what kind of data China would even want from police drones. Much of the information drones collect, such as footage and some data, is considered a public record in Florida, anyway. He noted that most police carry watches made in China, phones made in China and police body cameras made in China.

A spokesperson for DJI said a “vast number” of government agencies in the United States use DJI drones.

“This includes a multitude of law enforcement partners and first responders, who know they can trust our products because they are safe and secure,” the spokesperson said.

Wright’s efforts to delay the state’s rule against drones have not gained much traction so far. Both his bill and a companion bill filed by Rep. Thad Altman, R-Indialantic, would give police until 2026 to transition away from DJI drones. Neither bill has received a hearing.

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