Illinois Lawmakers Loosen Restrictions On Police Use Of Drones

HIGHLAND PARK, IL — Lawmakers sent a series of changes to state law regulating the use of drones by Illinois police departments to the governor’s desk this week.

State Sen. Julie Morrison (D-Lake Forest), was a chief-cosponsor of House Bill 3902, which passed the Senate 56-1 on Wednesday, with the House concurring Thursday in a 84-7 vote.

Dubbed the Drones As First Responders Act, the amendments to the Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act were drawn up in response to last year’s mass shooting in Highland Park. Morrison and her family, who had been riding in the parade, ran for their lives when the gunfire began.

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“That is legislation that I’ve been working on for many many months since the 4th of July parade tragedy in Highland Park. It’s a bill that allows law enforcement to use drones at large public gatherings,” said Morrison.

“It’s a tool that we absolutely need, and I’m so pleased to announce that this bill passed with significant support and bipartisan support,” she said after the bill’s House and Senate passage. “That tells me that people all over the state are feeling the same pressures and uncertainties of being out in public in large crowds.”

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Read More: Police Drone Could’ve Stopped Highland Park Shooting, Politicians Say

Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering said city officials appreciate the work of Morrison and the bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Linda Holmes (D-Aurora).

“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 life-saving services,” Rotering said in a statement.

Morrison suggested that the law could have changed the outcome of the 2022 parade shooting, and Holmes said it could “spare another community” from having to experience another shooting like the 2019 workplace mass shooting at the Henry Pratt Company in Aurora.

“I sincerely hope this approach makes a difference in how law enforcement and first responders can gather information and take lifesaving actions swiftly,” Holmes said in a statement. “Our communities deserve to feel safer as people go about their lives.”

During last year’s shooting, police said they were unable to locate the gunman during the 60 to 90 seconds he spent firing at paradegoers from a rooftop at the intersection of Central Avenue and Second Street.

“I and my fellow law enforcement officers were present in the area and took action immediately, but it was futile,” Cmdr. Chris O’Neil, who was assigned to manage the parade detail for Highland Park police, said in an affidavit. “The shooting stopped before officers, like myself, could locate the shooter, much less stop him.”

Authorities said the shooter was able to escape the scene and drive to Wisconsin with a second semiautomatic rifle, though he decided against using it and returned to Illinois within a few hours.

Under the terms of House Bill 3902, police can use drones at parade and special events, but not at political protests, marches, demonstrations or other First Amendment-protected assemblies.

If police have reasonable suspicion that “swift action is needed to prevent imminent harm to life or to forestall the imminent escape of a suspect or the destruction of evidence,” or if the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has determined there is credible intelligence of a high risk of a terrorist attack, the bill permits law enforcement agencies to use facial recognition software in conjunction with drone flights.

The bill also increases reporting requirements for law enforcement use of drones. Whereas police previously only had to report the number of drones they used, the bill includes more detailed requirements about what information must be disclosed about drone usage, including the time, date, location, reason for use and whether video was recorded.

Agencies would need to publicly post their drone program policy, and some records of drone usage could be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act.

Morrison said the bill had the support of police chiefs across the state, and though the bill was previously opposed by the ACLU of Illinois, the civil liberties group eventually shifted to neutral following months of negotiations.

“We’re looking for whatever security measures we can give the police to keep us safe when we’re doing farmer’s markets, parades, large public events,” Morrison said.

“[I’m] really looking forward to the governor signing this legislation soon and much safer summer celebrations.”

Sen. Rachel Ventura (D-Joliet) was the lone state senator to vote against the bill. Patch inquired with her office as to the reasons for her opposition and will update with any response received. In the House, three state representatives voted “present” and 11 did not vote at all.

Patch asked a spokesperson for Gov. J.B. Pritzker whether he plans to sign the bill or has any comment about its passage. Any information received will be added here.

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