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Coronavirus (COVID-19): the policing response and what you need to know

Drone Deployments 2019-2020

Date of request: July 29, 2020
Reference: 757/20

Request

Please can you tell me if the Avon and Somerset Constabulary has used drones (UAVs) during 2019-20, either operationally or in testing?

If drones have been used please confirm

  1. a) the dates of their use
  2. b) The purpose for using them
  3. c) the company which supplied them

Response

Avon and Somerset Constabulary have used drones during 2019 and 2020.

Please find the monthly breakdown for 2019 and January – June 2020 below. We are unable to provide any further figures for 2020 as these numbers are collated quarterly by the multiple departments that use drones. They will therefore be available in September.

Monthly breakdown of drone deployment: Total deployed:
2019  
January 8
February 3
March 13
April 10
May 14
June 15
July 17
September 21
October 7
November 12
December 12
2020: 6
January 7
February 5
March 20
April 22
May 21
June 28

The constabulary uses drones for a variety of policing purposes including but not limited to; Person Search; Crime scene search and recording; Public safety and management of crowded spaces. Road collision investigation and recording; Firearms support; Operational response; Training and planning support. Support to partner agencies (Fire/ Local Authority/ Environment agency etc) and Support to Enabling services (Estates & facilities).

The Constabulary does not sub-contract any UAV services from outside bodies.

The information you have requested regarding the company that supplies Avon and Somerset Constabulary with drones has been considered exempt from disclosure. The exemption applicable to the withheld information is section 31(1)(a)(b) of the act which relates to law enforcement.  Section 31 is a qualified and prejudice based exemption which means there is a requirement to identify and evidence the harm that would be caused by disclosure and consideration given to the public interest which is below.

Harm

There are concerns associated with the release of any information that would identify the type of UAVs owned by the constabulary as law enforcement could be adversely affected. The release of this information would equip individuals involved in criminal activity with an indication of our capabilities. This information, together with other information already in the public domain would assist those involved in criminal behaviour in identifying the vehicles that are used for covert operations. This would render them useless, hinder the prevention and detection of crime and could compromise ongoing and future enquiries.

Public Interest Test for Section 31(1)(a)(b)

Considerations favouring disclosure

Disclosure may add value to the accuracy of public debate with regards to resources allocated for the prevention and detection of crime.

Considerations favouring non-disclosure

The Police Service has a duty to deliver effective law enforcement ensuring that the prevention and detection of crime, apprehension or prosecution of offenders, and administration of justice is carried out appropriately.

Disclosing information that would allow the identification of force UAVs could compromise their operational purpose and allow them to be targeted. Disclosure may reveal what resources are available and this information could enable police strength to be determined and circumvented by those intent on committing crime.  The release of this information could therefore provide a tactical advantage to offenders which would negatively impact on public safety and undermine the policing purpose.

Disclosing the details of UAVs would provide sufficient information to those involved in criminal activity of the capabilities available to the force when carrying out policing duties. This could result in them taking steps to evade detection and to destroy evidence if they believe that their movements are being monitored. This could also lead to UAVs being damaged or identified which would render any capabilities useless.

Balance Test 

The ability to deliver effective law enforcement is of paramount importance.  Whilst the value of transparency is recognised, there is no further tangible benefit to disclosing the company that supplies our drones, and in turn the type of UAVs owned by the Constabulary.  This may be interesting to some individuals however this is as you will appreciate different to being in the public’s interest to know.  To disclose this information concerning Police drones would have an adverse effect on our ability to prevent and detect crime.  Therefore on balance the factors favouring non-disclosure outweigh those favouring. This represents a refusal notice for this part of your request.

Avon and Somerset Constabulary neither confirms nor denies that it holds any other information relevant to the request by virtue of the following exemptions:

Section 23(5) – Information supplied by, or concerning, certain security bodies

Section 24(2) – National Security

Section 31(3) – Law Enforcement

Section 23 is an absolute class-based exemption and there is no requirement to conduct a harm or public interest test.

Sections 24, and 31 are prejudice based qualified exemptions and there is a requirement to articulate the harm that would be caused in confirming or denying that any other information is held as well as carrying out a public interest test.

Harm for the partial NCND

As you may be aware, disclosure under FOIA is a release to the public at large. Whilst not questioning the motives of yourself, confirming or denying that any other information is held regarding the use of this specialist equipment for covert use, would show criminals what the capacity, tactical abilities and capabilities of the force are, allowing them to target specific areas of the UK to conduct their criminal/terrorist activities. Confirming or denying the specific circumstances in which the police service may or may not deploy UAV’s, would lead to an increase of harm to covert investigations and compromise law enforcement. This would be to the detriment of providing an efficient policing service and a failure in providing a duty of care to all members of the public.

The threat from terrorism cannot be ignored.  It is generally recognised that the international security landscape is increasingly complex and unpredictable. Since 2006, the UK Government have published the threat level, based upon current intelligence and that threat is currently categorised as ‘substantial’, see link; https://www.mi5.gov.uk/threat-levels

The UK continues to face a sustained threat from violent extremists and terrorists.

It is well established that police forces use covert tactics and surveillance to gain intelligence in order to counteract criminal behaviour. It has been previously documented in the media that many terrorist incidents have been thwarted due to intelligence gained by these means.

Confirming or denying that any other information is held in relation to the covert use of UAV’s would limit operational capabilities as criminals/terrorists would gain a greater understanding of the police’s methods and techniques, enabling them to take steps to counter them. It may also suggest the limitations of police capabilities in this area, which may further encourage criminal/terrorist activity by exposing potential vulnerabilities. This detrimental effect is increased if the request is made to several different law enforcement bodies. In addition to the local criminal fraternity now being better informed, those intent on organised crime throughout the UK will be able to ‘map’ where the use of certain tactics are or are not deployed. This can be useful information to those committing crimes. It would have the likelihood of identifying location-specific operations which would ultimately compromise police tactics, operations and future prosecutions as criminals could counteract the measures used against them.

Any information identifying the focus of policing activity could be used to the advantage of terrorists or criminal organisations.  Information that undermines the operational integrity of these activities will adversely affect public safety and have a negative impact on both national security and law enforcement.

Factors favouring Neither Confirming Nor Denying for Section 24

The information if held simply relates to national security and confirming or denying whether it is held would not actually harm it. The public are entitled to know what public funds are spent on and what security measures are in place, and by confirming or denying whether any other information regarding the covert use of UAV’s is held, would lead to a better-informed public.

Factors against Neither Confirming Nor Denying for Section 24

By confirming or denying whether any other information is held would render Security measures less effective. This would lead to the compromise of ongoing or future operations to protect the security or infra-structure of the UK and increase the risk of harm to the public.

Factors favouring Neither Confirming Nor Denying for Section 31

Confirming or denying whether any other information is held regarding the covert use of UAV’s would provide an insight into the police service. This would enable the public to have a better understanding of the effectiveness of the police and about how the police gather intelligence. It would greatly assist in the quality and accuracy of public debate, which could otherwise be steeped in rumour and speculation. Where public funds are being spent, there is a public interest in accountability and justifying the use of public money.

Some information is already in the public domain regarding the police use of this type of specialist equipment and confirming or denying whether any other information is held would ensure transparency and accountability and enable the public to see what tactics are deployed by the Police Service to detect crime.

Factors against Neither Confirming Nor Denying for Section 31

Confirming or denying that any other information is held regarding the covert use of UAV’s would have the effect of compromising law enforcement tactics and would also hinder any future investigations.  In addition, confirming or denying methods used to gather intelligence for an investigation would prejudice that investigation and any possible future proceedings.

It has been recorded that FOIA releases are monitored by criminals and terrorists and so to confirm or deny any other information is held concerning specialist covert tactics would lead to law enforcement being undermined. The Police Service is reliant upon all manner of techniques during operations and the public release of any modus operandi employed, if held, would prejudice the ability of the Police Service to conduct similar investigations.

By confirming or denying whether any other information is held in relation to the covert use of UAV’s would hinder the prevention or detection of crime. The Police Service would not wish to reveal what tactics may or may not have been used to gain intelligence as this would clearly undermine the law enforcement and investigative process. This would impact on police resources and more crime and terrorist incidents would be committed, placing individuals at risk. It can be argued that there are significant risks associated with providing information, if held, in relation to any aspect of investigations or of any nation’s security arrangements so confirming or denying that any other information is held, may reveal the relative vulnerability of what we may be trying to protect.

Balance test

The security of the country is of paramount importance and the Police service will not divulge whether any other information is or is not held regarding the covert use of UAV’s if to do so would place the safety of an individual at risk, undermine National Security or compromise law enforcement.

Whilst there is a public interest in the transparency of policing operations and providing assurance that the police service is appropriately and effectively engaging with the threat posed by various groups or individuals, there is a very strong public interest in safeguarding the integrity of police investigations and operations in the highly sensitive areas such as extremism, crime prevention, public disorder and terrorism prevention.

As much as there is public interest in knowing that policing activity is appropriate and balanced this will only be overridden in exceptional circumstances. The areas of police interest discussed above are sensitive issues that reveal local intelligence and therefore it is our opinion that for these issues the balancing test for confirming or denying whether any other information is held regarding the covert use of UAV’s, is not made out.

However, this should not be taken as necessarily indicating that any information that would meet your request exists or does not exist.

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