CPD launched secret drone program with off-the-books cash

In an email last summer, a police official reported that its counter-terrorism bureau started a pilot drone program using forfeiture proceeds — money and other assets seized in connection to criminal investigations.

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Drones have been added to the arsenal of the Chicago Police Department, emails show.

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The Chicago Police Department started a secretive drone program using off-budget cash to pay for the new technology, the Sun-Times has learned. 

Details of the police department’s drone program were included in an email sent last summer by Karen Conway, director of police research and development. In the email, Conway told other high-ranking police officials that the department’s counter-terrorism bureau “utilized 1505 funds for a pilot Drone program that operates within the parameters of current laws.”

The drones “have been purchased and the Electronic & Technical Support Unit (Counter-terrorism) is in the process of creating a training to start a pilot. Some of the Drone uses will be for missing persons, crime scene photos, and terrorist related issues,” Conway said in the June 12, 2020, email to former Deputy Supt. Barbara West and Michele Morris, the department’s risk manager.

The department’s “1505” fund is made up of forfeiture proceeds — money and other assets seized in connection to criminal investigations. The money isn’t included in the department’s official budget and has reportedly been used in the past to purchase other controversial technology, like Stingrays, which mimic cell towers and send out signals to trick phones into transmitting their locations and other information.

A state law that went into effect in July 2018 requires law enforcement agencies to report seizure and forfeiture information to the Illinois State Police.

Over the past two years, the department reported taking in seized or awarded assets valued at an estimated $25.9 million. That haul stems from investigations into alleged drug crimes and money laundering, but the reports don’t give the full scope of the department’s take because details about seized vehicles were redacted.

The reports state that roughly $7.7 million was spent over that period on operating expenses, witness protection, informant fees and controlled drug buys, as well as travel, meals, conferences, training and continuing education. The spending isn’t itemized, but the reports state that operating expenses can cover vehicles, guns and equipment, such as drones.

Conway’s message about the drone program was among a cache of hacked city emails that were leaked online last month by Distributed Denial of Secrets, a transparency nonprofit likened to WikiLeaks. Other emails show the Chicago Fire Department owns drones worth at least $23,000, though a spokesman clarified on Wednesday that it hasn’t yet earned permission to start a drone program.


Details of the police department’s drone program were included at the bottom of an email sent last summer by Karen Conway, director of police research and development.

Asked about the police department’s drone program, a spokesman said it “regularly investigates new technology and strategies.”

“The Department considers every tool available when it comes to maintaining public safety and actively searches for innovative opportunities,” spokesman Don Terry said in a statement without specifically mentioning drones.

“CPD has strict guidelines for all tools and programs to ensure individual privacy, civil rights, civil liberties and other interests are protected,” Terry added. “We also meet with community partners to make certain that all enforcement efforts meet the highest standards and have support among the individuals Chicago police officers are sworn to serve and protect.”

Terry and other spokespeople for the police department and the mayor’s office didn’t respond to specific questions about the emails. Kristen Cabanban, a spokeswoman for Chicago’s Law Department, issued a statement Friday saying city agencies wouldn’t answer questions about the contents of the hacked emails.

Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for ACLU-Illinois, spoke at the offices of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

Ed Yohnka, spokesman for ACLU-Illinois, has concerns about the drone program.

Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

ACLU raises alarms

Over the course of multiple emails about the drone programs, Susan Lee, the former deputy mayor of public safety, twice noted there were concerns over the expected response from privacy advocates. However, city employees included in the discussions never independently raised alarms over privacy issues.

Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, told the Sun-Times the emails show the city continues to pursue the invasive technologies without any public disclosure, oversight or publicly adopted privacy policies,” undercutting Terry’s claims.

“We should not be surprised. This behavior goes back more than two decades when Chicago first began to place surveillance cameras all across the city,” Yohnka said. “To this day, residents of the city have never seen a privacy policy for the use of those cameras.”

In 2018, the ACLU accused former Mayor Rahm Emanuel of being the heavy hand behind legislation in Springfield that would have allowed police officers to use drones equipped with facial recognition technology to monitor protests. Versions of the legislation passed both the state house and senate but a final bill was never signed into law.

“Given that the city not so long ago sought legislation to permit using drones to surveil public gatherings, including those engaged in First Amendment activity, it is worth questioning its motivations,” Yohnka said of the new revelation.

In a report issued in February lambasting the city’s response to the protests and unrest that broke out in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd last year, city Inspector General Joseph Ferguson noted that drones were likely flying overhead at some demonstrations.

On May 30, the day an early downtown protest devolved into chaos, Ferguson said CPD officials contacted the Illinois State Police “to request its deployment, and ISP made determinations about which resources to deploy, including crowd control teams, canine units, videographers, drones and SWAT teams.”

“By ISP’s accounting of their deployment in Chicago and their operating procedures, they used videographers and/or drone footage to capture records of potential uses of force and arrests,” Ferguson wrote. “However, a review of ISP’s force reporting obligations and compliance was out of the scope of this report.”

Use of drones in car chases discussed


Karen Conway, director of police research and development for the Chicago Police Department


Conway’s comments about the police department’s drone program were included in an email discussing a new vehicle pursuit policy.

The memo also included other technology options the department was considering to apparently minimize the risk of engaging in chases: a device to shut down a fleeing vehicle’s engine and a system for remote tracking. The latter option, StarChase, is a mechanism that allows cops to shoot a GPS-equipped dart at a suspect’s car.

Last August, the police department issued revised directives on pursuits, but the general order bears no mention of the technologies.

An email sent on Aug. 16, 2019 by Tamika Puckett, the city’s former chief risk officer, presented drones as a potentially cheaper alternative to StarChase. 

“StarChase might be too costly of an option for our needs. If so, then we should research the drone issue, especially the city ordinance and what changes need to be made to it in order to even consider this an option,” Puckett wrote to Morris and other staffers.

Chicago’s drone ordinance is highly restrictive, though law enforcement agencies operating in the city are afforded an exception to its prohibitions if their drone use complies with state law. That law allows police to use drones for a variety of purposes, namely countering terrorism, searching for missing persons, photographing crime scenes and even pursuing crime suspects.

While the conversations about drones apparently happened in fits and starts, the high-level correspondence stretched on for months. Many of the emails related to the city’s need to purchase drone insurance.

In an email chain on that topic dated March 5, 2020, Lee expressed her intention to hold a meeting “because all three public safety agencies want drones.” Although her email doesn’t name the agencies, later emails show the police and fire departments ultimately obtained drones. It’s unclear whether the Office of Emergency Management and Control also purchased drones.

Fire department owns multiple drones but program’s in limbo

Over the course of those emails, Keith Wilson, a former deputy district fire chief, reported on Sept. 22, 2020, that the department owned four drones worth $23,000. Two days earlier, Angela Weis, Lightfoot’s senior adviser on public safety policy and operations, told Lee that the fire department planned to use the drones for search and rescue operations.

The Chicago Fire Department Foundation, a nonprofit that supports firefighters and paramedics and their families, previously published a blog post last April reporting that Wintrust Financial had donated three drones to the department.

“For the CFD, the use of drones has the potential to make a large impact in how effectively the Department can mitigate fires, disasters or large-scale incidents, offering an aerial perspective and helping to identify areas of evacuation and most urgent needs for response,” according to the post. “Equally important is the utilization of images and videos post-incident to assist in fire investigations, critiques and training purposes.”

On October 5, 2020, Puckett ultimately told former Chicago Fire Commissioner Richard Ford II that “the city purchased drone property and liability insurance coverage for our drone programs citywide,” apparently closing the loop on a conversation that stretched nearly a year.

On Wednesday, Larry Langford, a spokesman for the fire department, confirmed it purchased an additional drone but is currently only using the donated drones for training purposes.

“We do not have permission yet to implement a drone program,” said Langford. “We have many members now certified to fly a commercial drone but we do not use them in regular operations until the actual program is blessed and in place.”

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