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Police Drone Could've Stopped Highland Park Shooting, Politicians Say

Patch 3/27/2023 Jonah Meadows
Highland Park police reportedly wanted to use a drone at the city's 2022 Fourth of July parade, but it was not permitted under state law. © Jonah Meadows/Patch, File Highland Park police reportedly wanted to use a drone at the city's 2022 Fourth of July parade, but it was not permitted under state law.

HIGHLAND PARK, IL — Local lawmakers want to amend the state law regulating the police use of drones, suggesting that loosening the legislative limits on law enforcement use of unmanned aerial vehicles at parades, protests and other special events could prevent an act of violence like last year's 4th of July mass shooting in Highland Park.

State Sen. Julie Morrison, a Lake Forest Democrat, was riding in the parade when a rooftop shooter opened fire at paradegoers, killing seven people and wounding 48 others.

Morrison, who has been working on negotiating an amendment to the Illinois Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act, last week told syndicated columnist Rich Miller that giving police more freedom to conduct surveillance with drones "could have prevented the shooting in Highland Park."

State lawmakers have for years proposed changed to the decade-old law, which only allows for warrantless use of drones in a few circumstances.

Those exceptions include photographing crashes and crime scenes, disasters and public health emergencies, missing people, when there is a reasonable suspicion of a threat, escaped suspect or destruction of evidence, or when the Department of Homeland Security determines there is a high risk of a terrorist attack.

A 2018 effort to add additional exceptions to allow police to monitor protests, rallies and other large special events passed the Illinois House but never received final approval in the Senate. The proposal followed reports that the mass shooter at a Las Vegas music festival had earlier booked rooms at Chicago's Blackstone Hotel overlooking the Lollapalooza music festival, but never arrived.

In January 2022, State Rep. Thaddeus Jones proposed another amendment to the bill that would have allowed law enforcement agencies to use drones at special events to prepare for and monitor special events, which are defined as any non-routine activity "that brings together a large number of people."

The bill would also have expanded the ability for police to use drones to locate missing people or to assist those who are emotionally disturbed. It also called for police to destroy data collected from any "demonstration, protest, rally, march, parade, or other gathering for the purpose of expressing political, religious, social, or other views" within seven days, unless there was suspicion it contained evidence of criminal activity or was relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.

Jones' proposal, which began as an initiative of the Aurora Police Department and was supported by the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, failed to garner any co-sponsors and expired in committee earlier this year.

State Rep. Bob Morgan, the Deerfield Democrat who also attended the parade and subsequently sponsored the Protect Illinois Communities Act, which bans assault-style weapons and large-capacity magazines, also called for changes to the bill.

“The Illinois Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act was passed in 2014 in an effort to balance evolving technology with important privacy concerns," Morgan said in a statement.

"Nearly ten years later, it has been unchanged and undeniably stands in the way of law enforcement doing their jobs to keep our communities safe," he said. "We need to revisit and amend this law to prevent future mass shootings like what we endured on July 4th in Highland Park.”

Highland Park Police Chief Lou Jogmen, whose department has operated a drone for about four years. Jogmen has "for years" wanted to use the drone to fly over public events, including last summer's parade, Miller reported, but he has so far been unable to do so because of state law.

The expansion of law enforcement authority to use unmanned aerial vehicles at public events has been opposed by the American Civil Liberties Association of Illinois. According to Miller, Chicago officials also concerned that changes to state law could affect the city's own rules.

Cmdr. Chris O'Neil was assigned to manage the parade detail for Highland Park police and became the incident commander after the shooting. In an affidavit filed in a legal challenge to the city's ordinance defining and banning assault weapons, he describes how police were unable to locate the rooftop gunman.

O'Neil said he immediately recognized the sound of gunfire, but — due to echoes from nearby buildings and the sound of fleeing paradegoers — he and his fellow officers were unable to tell where it was coming from as they responded to the carnage.

"I continued to try and find the shooter, but could not. By the time I reached the intersection where I now understand the shooter was, the shooting had stopped," O'Neill said.

"On July 4th, law enforcement personnel and first responders were already close by and could respond immediately to the mass shooting, and yet we were not able to stop the shooter or save those killed in time," according to the commander's affidavit.

"I and my fellow law enforcement officers were present in the area and took action immediately, but it was futile," he said. "The shooting stopped before officers, like myself, could locate the shooter, much less stop him."

A 22-year-old Highland Park High School dropout is charged with the slayings and awaiting trial on murder and aggravated battery with a firearm charges that could lead to a mandatory sentence of life in prison. He is due back in court May 9 in Waukegan. His father faces felony reckless conduct charges in connection with his application for a gun license and is due back in court April 4.

The article Police Drone Could've Stopped Highland Park Shooting, Politicians Say appeared first on Highland Park Patch.

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