Illinois bill allowing law enforcement drones over parades passes despite objections

May 30, 2023
The legislation amends the Freedom From Drone Surveillance Act by allowing law enforcement to use drones at “routed” or “special” events, which means planned gatherings like parades, walks, races, concerts and food festivals.

Almost a year after the mass shooting in Highland Park that left seven people dead and over 30 injured, Illinois lawmakers passed a bill that would allow law enforcement to operate a surveillance drone for security purposes during special events like the Fourth of July parade where the shooting took place.

“It has been so clear to me that we need to give the police just this one additional tool to keep people safe,” said Democratic state Sen. Julie Morrison of Deerfield, whose district includes Highland Park and who was at the parade with her family when the gunman took aim from a nearby rooftop.

The legislation, passed in the final hours of the General Assembly’s spring session last week, amends the Freedom From Drone Surveillance Act by allowing law enforcement to use drones at “routed” or “special” events, which means planned gatherings like parades, walks, races, concerts and food festivals.

Under the measure, drones could be operated only by a law enforcement agency and could not be weaponized. The public would have to be notified when they were in use, and facial identity systems could be used only if necessary to prevent “imminent harm to life.”

Democratic state Sen. Rachel Ventura of Joliet was the lone “no” vote in the chamber.

“When we pass legislation that allows law enforcement to potentially overstep privacy, I get a little wary about the slippery slope of what that could look like,” she said. “My heart goes out to everyone who was out at the Highland parade that day and I can’t imagine the terror and trauma it is. But at the same point, we have to find that balance on the spectrum between freedom and safety.”

In the House, Democratic Rep. Curtis Tarver of Chicago expressed similar concerns about an invasion of individual rights.

“It seems very political in nature, quite honestly,” he said in the House floor debate. “It doesn’t leave the average citizen — who may have had their rights violated — the ability to pursue justice.”

He also noted that it took a mass shooting in a predominantly white suburb to get lawmakers moving on drones.

“We have mass shootings unfortunately in the city of Chicago very, very often. And nobody here had the political fortitude or concern for people of color to bring a bill that related to drones in some other way to monitor these events,” Tarver said. “So, it’s frustrating.”

Tarver was on the short end of an 84-7 vote in the House.

In addition to special events, drones could also be used to aid in search and rescue operations, which is not permissible at present.

“This is not going to be just a drone that can be in anyone’s community for whatever reason,” Rep. Barbara Hernandez of Aurora said on the House floor. “This is a specific purpose.”

Drones would not be allowed at events that are specifically political, such as rallies or protests.

“There was concern from different stakeholders that facial recognition could be used against individuals,” Morrison said in an interview.

She said she worked to bring the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois to a neutral position on the bill by specifying limited instances when facial recognition could be used, in part to assuage fears that drones could be used to track immigrants who are in the country without legal permission and have them turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Also under the measure, the footage must be erased after 24 hours except in specific cases, such as if the footage contains evidence of a crime. A report must be made by a law enforcement agency as to why, where and when a drone was used.

The 2024 budget lists $270,000 for Illinois police departments “for capital improvements and purchase of equipment including drones,” with Highland Park’s department receiving $15,000.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office would not comment when asked whether he plans to sign the bill.


©2023 Chicago Tribune. Visit at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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