Having completed enquiries within Essex Police in respect of Section 1(1)(a), Essex Police does hold information relating to your request, Essex Police can confirm in respect of Section 1(1)(b) the following data:
Caveat: The data is correct as at 05 October 2021.
How many drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles) are owned by the force at present?
Essex Police currently have 12 drones.
On how many operations between September 2020 and September 2021 were drones used by the force?
From 01 September 2020 to 31 August 2021 drones were used in 664 operations.
Were any complaints made to the force about its use of drones by a member of the public during that time?
No complaints were received regarding the use of Essex Police drones.
Please provide the total number of complaints and the reason for each.
In addition to the above, Essex Police can neither confirm nor deny any other information is held in regard to the covert use of drones by virtue of the following exemptions:
Section 23(5) Security Bodies
Section 24(2) National Security
Section 31(3) Law Enforcement
Harm in Confirming or Denying that Information is Held
As you will be aware, disclosure under the FOIA is a release to the public at large. Whilst not questioning the motives of the applicant, confirming or denying that any other information is held regarding the use of drones for covert purposes, 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 drones, 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 and it is well established that Police forces use covert tactics and surveillance to gain intelligence in order to counteract criminal behaviour. As such, 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 Essex Police hold any other information in relation to the covert use of drones, or unmanned aerial devices, would limit operational capabilities as criminals/terrorists would gain a greater understanding of the Police forces’ 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.
Public Interest Test
Factors favouring Confirming or Denying for Section 24
Any further 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 drones is held, would lead to a better informed public.
Factors favouring 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 Confirming or Denying for Section 31
Confirming or denying whether any other information is held regarding the covert use of drones would provide an insight into Essex Police. 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 Confirming or Denying for Section 31
Confirming or denying that any other information is held regarding the covert use of drones 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 drones would hinder the prevention or detection of crime. Essex Police 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 information is held, may reveal the relative vulnerability of what we may be trying to protect.
The security of the country is of paramount importance and Essex Police will not divulge whether any information is or is not held regarding the covert use of drones 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 Essex Police 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 all areas of operations carried out by Police forces throughout the UK.
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 covert use of drones in any covert capacity is a sensitive issue that would reveal Police tactics and, therefore, it is our opinion that for these issues the balancing test for confirming or denying whether any information is held regarding the covert use of drones is not made out.
However, this should not be taken as necessarily indicating that any information that would meet any future request exists or does not exist.