Legislation that would allow police to use drones for monitoring parades, large events passes
Legislation that will allow law enforcement agencies to use drones to surveil large public gatherings, such as the Highland Park Fourth of July parade where a rooftop shooter killed seven people and injured more than 50 others last year, recently passed both houses of the General Assembly.
The Drones as First Responders Act now is headed to Gov. J.B. Pritzker's desk to be signed into law. It will allow police agencies to use drones to monitor large special events, such as parades and festivals, held in public outdoor spaces and to surveil and secure scenes during an emergency.
The legislation was inspired by Highland Park's July 4 mass shooting in which the shooter rained gunfire down at the crowds gathered for the parade from the rooftop of a downtown building. The measure was backed by law enforcement agencies statewide.
"It just makes sense," said John Millner, director of government relations and lobbyist for the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.
Millner, Elmhurst's longest-serving police chief who also served in the state House and Senate, said had Highland Park been allowed to use a drone during last year's July 4 parade the situation would have been quite different.
"If the drone were up, this would have never happened," Millner said. "Had a drone been in the air, our prediction is that the (Highland Park) shooter would not have taken the chance, based on all we know."
In a news release, Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering thanked lawmakers who spearheaded the legislation to broaden the use of drones for "preventative use against public safety threats."
"Allowing our public safety personnel the use of drones to monitor large scale public events will increase their ability to secure an area, and save time while improving the delivery of lifesaving services," she said.
State Sen. Julie Morrison of Lake Forest, among the lead Senate sponsors of the legislation, was with her family when the shooting started at last year's Highland Park July 4 parade and among those in the crowd running for cover.
"Drones provide an invaluable resource that can be used to monitor large crowds for suspicious activity," said Morrison in a news release. "This technology exists -- there's no reason we shouldn't put it in the hands of law enforcement. The devastating July day in Highland Park underscored the need for increased public safety initiatives for large events."
State Sen. Linda Holmes and Rep. Barbara Hernandez, both of Aurora, are chief sponsors of the Drones as First Responders Act.
Following the 2019 mass shooting at Henry Pratt Co. in Aurora in which five employees were killed by a co-worker, the Aurora Police Department's drone team reviewed how other states use drones to support law enforcement operations.
In 2021, members of the Aurora Police Drone Team approached Mayor Richard Irvin about proposing changes to the state law to make drones more available to law enforcement to support preventive and proactive responses, city officials said.
Holmes introduced a bill in 2022 after working with area police departments, the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, state's attorney offices, the American Civil Liberties Union and other privacy advocates.
"This measure gives police and other first responders critical information in a chaotic situation where lives are at stake," Holmes said in a news release. "This capability could spare another community the suffering and trauma we experienced here."
Aurora police officials joined Holmes, Hernandez, and other supporters of the legislation in Springfield to emphasize the importance of updating the law.
"We have found that the current limitations ... have prevented us from using drones to their fullest extent and from keeping communities as safe as we can," said Aurora police Lt. Andrew Wolcott, a licensed drone pilot, drone trainer, and special events lead, in a news release. "Events across our country have been subject to mass shootings as seen within our state, vehicle attacks, and hundreds of people being trampled or killed due to overcrowding. Using drones can give a real-time picture of what is happening at an event and bring attention to pedestrian flow traffic issues, allowing law enforcement to respond in a proactive rather than reactive manner."
The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police has proposed drone bills over the last several years that went nowhere. It wasn't until the Highland Park mass shooting that the winds changed and public opinion shifted in favor of the use of drones by law enforcement.
"Some of it was falling on deaf ears, but after the Highland Park situation people started paying attention," Millner said.
The group also backed the Drones as First Responders Act.
There are many situations and examples throughout the state of crises that could have been averted, if police were allowed to use drones before, Millner said.
Before this legislation passed, law enforcement agencies could use drones only for traffic accident investigations or locating missing persons, but not to monitor parades or public events.
Police could use helicopters or hot air balloons for monitoring from above, but those are expensive options not many departments can afford, Millner said.
Alternatively, drones are small, can move quickly and are less disruptive, Millner added.
"They are frankly very economically," he said. "You can move from one spot to the next quickly and protect your community. They can spot trouble clearly, if somebody is walking on a roof with a rifle, they would see it right away. You can put police officers on the ground where they are needed."
"This July 4, (Highland Park) can have a drone in the air if they want one."
However, there are limitations on where and how law enforcement agencies can use drones. The legislation restricts photography, prohibits facial recognition or onboard weapons, and adds reporting and retention constraints.