Police Scotland stresses drones not for surveillance as wide-ranging uses revealed

Drones are being deployed by Police Scotland for public order incidents, murder investigations and drugs operations, the force has told watchdogs.

Police Scotland's drones were used in 352 incidents in their first year. Police Scotland/PA Wire
Police Scotland's drones were used in 352 incidents in their first year. Police Scotland/PA Wire

These included a large gathering of youths being tracked on Troon beach, an annual event which “has often seen scenes of drunken disorder”.

The drone provided “an overview of the beach area that allowed the incident commander to deploy resources appropriately and proportionately,” the force said.

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The revelations, in a report to the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), surprised members of its policing performance committee because the “remotely-piloted aircraft systems” (RPAS) were due to be used primarily to help search for missing people.

Police Scotland’s three drones were used in 352 incidents in their first year up to April, it told the SPA.

It plans to add more.

Other deployments from the drones’ bases in Aberdeen, Inverness and Glasgow included to the Greenpeace occupation of an oil rig in the Cromarty Firth, and fatal industrial accidents, road crashes and fires.

When the drones were announced for use from May last year, the force said they would be ”used primarily in the search for missing people” but “will also be available to support local policing incidents and pre-planned operations and events”.

Bob Hayes, a member of the SPA committee said: "I was a little surprised as the last time this came to the SPA last May, there was a very clear understanding that the RPAS would not be used for operational tasking other than searching for missing persons, without further authority.

"It’s the chief constable’s decision to deploy, but I think the commitment given by Deputy Chief Constable [Johnny] Gwynne at the time was as a result of some of the public concern issues around the deployment, that the authority would at least have the opportunity to have a view before the deployment were extended.

"It is pretty clear the deployment has been extended significantly.

“There is concern about mission creep with the use of RPAS.”

Committee chair Martyn Evans said: “I think the public concern would be over surveillance.

"People get worried, quite rightly, even over overt surveillance and it undermines confidence in policing.

"I do think the range of deployments you are talking about here is wider than I understood them.

"I think there are some human rights issues here about surveillance, for example the Troon beach deployment.

“The parameters of deployment are wider than we were first expecting.

"I would like a greater assurance about how those are managed.”

However, Chief Superintendent Louise Skelton told the committee: "The concern was in respect of the covert use...which we have undertaken absolutely not to do.

"I am not aware of those caveats [over extending deployments] being in place but it is certainly something I can review.

"But there clearly have been benefits and the deployments have evolved and the executive were content with that progress.

“We are not conducting surveillance."

Chf Supt Skelton said the drones were “providing operational assistance and we don’t retain the data”, except where it was required as evidence.

She said the value the drones had added was “second to none”.

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