Metro Louisville

The footage opens with a quick pan of traffic crossing Eighth Street and Broadway. The audio captures chatter over the police scanner and the revving engine of a passing car. 

The camera hones in on a small crowd gathered on the street corner. Most begin to run, then slow and turn back, inquisitively.  One person points a flashlight.

“The first thing… that they throw something at it, light ‘em up,” an officer says.

The camera pans down to a couple men standing on the corner in the amber streetlight. It’s a news crew. The videographer points his camera upwards. 

“He’s filming us, go back up,” the officer says. 

The camera follows the crowd east to a nail salon at the corner of Seventh Street and Broadway. A flashlight’s beam again points at the camera. Someone throws a water bottle, then a second one. 

“Ah there go. He threw something. He threw a bottle at it. Light him up,” one officer said.  “They’re throwing water bottles at the drone.”

Police fire a volley of pepper rounds at the crowd. Puffs of white smoke dot the parking lot. It’s unclear if anyone is hit.

One officer says “that was fun.” Another laughs. The first one says, “at least we got rid of them.”

The video comes from a drone owned and operated by Kentucky State Police. It’s one of 168 KSP videos and dozens of photos obtained and reviewed by WFPL News. 

(Video by J. Tyler Franklin.)

With demonstrations erupting all over the country following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Louisville residents took to the streets in large numbers beginning in late May.

At the request of the Louisville Metro Police Department, KSP flew commercial drones to monitor downtown, capturing dramatic scenes of conflict, defiance and peaceful protest.

The high-quality video from the police drones reveals once-in-a-generation gatherings. The video is sharp enough to make out the words “COLOR IS NOT A CRIME” on a cardboard sign carried by a protester sitting on the roof of a Jeep and crisp enough to count the thousands marching through the city streets.   

Kentucky State Police

The drones’ footage reveals how they hovered over crowds both day and night, darting in between buildings to observe separate skirmishes playing out across downtown. Because of the dangers of flying drones over crowds, the Federal Aviation Administration requires licensed pilots to file for waivers, but the FAA says KSP never did that.

The footage captures both the beautiful and ugly truths of the demonstrations, said Shameka Parrish-Wright, co-chair of the Kentucky Alliance against Racist and Political Repression. 

“To say ‘light them up’ like we are some infidel, like we are some enemies, that is horrible to think like that. But we are not anything to them, we’re not even pawns,” Parrish-Wright said. “We are disposable, we don’t matter, but we pay their salaries.”  

A spokesman for Kentucky State Police said he had not seen the footage of police firing pepper rounds at the request of a drone operator, but it would be an appropriate use of force. Throwing something like a water bottle at the expensive equipment would constitute criminal mischief in the first degree, said Lt. Josh Lawson. 

“The unlawful activity and riots that were occurring included property damage,” Lawson said. “Crowd control measures are authorized to prevent the destruction of property. Simply because it is KSP property does not negate that fact.”

Drones Monitored ‘Louisville Riots’

Kentucky State Police logged more than a dozen flights over Louisville between May 29 and June 5. WFPL News requested KSP footage and flight logs from the date protests began from May 28 through June 7, when tensions between protesters and the city began to ebb. 

In the flight logs, KSP listed the incident type as “Louisville Riots” including several days after protests had calmed. Lawson maintained the description was accurate in an email exchange.  

“Again, if they were not riots then law enforcement would not be there engaging in law enforcement action,” Lawson said. 

State troopers flew the drones at the request of LMPD. 

LMPD Spokeswoman Jessie Halladay said the force doesn’t have drones of its own, but partnered with KSP to monitor protests because of safety concerns. LMPD used the footage as a live feed to watch what was happening on the ground, similar to cameras they use through their Real Time Crime Center, she said. 

Most of the footage obtained by WFPL News was recorded and stored locally on drones without audio; but of the videos that did include audio, police streamed them to a centralized location in real time, said Lawson with KSP.

KSP didn’t answer whether or not drones have been used at protests in the days since June 7, but its spokesman said LMPD can continue to ask for KSP assistance. In emails, both agencies declined interviews. 

Lawson would not reveal how many drones KSP owns, saying that information is an issue of operational security.  Flight logs, metadata and KSP statements taken together indicate KSP has at least four drones of varying makes and models.

Kentucky State Police

Drone operators with Kentucky State Police take a drone selfie.

KSP’s unmanned aerial vehicles include prominent brands: DJI, Anafi and Phantom, Lawson said. One of their drones, the DJI Inspire 2, can hit a max speed of 58 miles per hour and can fly for nearly a half hour before needing to recharge. Some are capable of using zoom lenses; others have thermal vision.  

Lawson estimated at least one of the drones cost $5,000. 

Amid other protests over police brutality and racial justice, The New York Times reports the Department of Homeland Security flew drones, helicopters and planes in more than 15 cities, logging nearly 300 hours of surveillance. Federal officials uploaded the footage to a system that allows access from other federal agencies and local police departments for future investigation, according to the newspaper. 

By comparison, KSP logged nearly 11 hours between May 29 and June 7. Most clips are under 10 minutes long. 

Lawson said police used KSP drones to watch for illegal activity and to efficiently organize law enforcement’s response. But he also said that unlike in other states, Kentucky has no legal mandate to destroy the footage and can use it to prosecute people involved in criminal activity. It can also be used for training purposes, he said. 

KSP’s Critical Incident Response Team stores the footage. For how long, depends on a “number of factors,”  Lawson said. Chief among them: whether videos will be used as evidence in a criminal investigation.

Drones And Privacy

KSP’s use of drones concerns civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Both groups want to know how the footage is stored, who has access and how long it is retained.  

“Drone use during peaceful protests allows police to use facial recognition technology to identify individual demonstrators photographed by drones even absent any suspicion of wrongdoing,” said EFF spokeswoman Karen Gullo.

ACLU Legal Director Corey Shapiro said he can understand the advantages of using drones to monitor protests, but warned it could skirt the judicial process if police use the drones to target specific individuals without seeking a warrant. 

“People shouldn’t be subject to surveillance absent a warrant authorized by a judge,” Shapiro said. 

The ACLU has sued LMPD over actions they say could have a chilling effect on constitutionally-protected activities including freedom of speech and assembly. Shapiro said the drone footage obtained by WFPL News further demonstrates police are not protecting First Amendment rights.  

Possible FAA Violations

To even fly in downtown, drone operators need authorization from the FAA because of the proximity to the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport. 

KSP has a certificate of authorization from the FAA to fly drones anywhere in Kentucky up to 100 miles per hour at altitudes of up to 400 feet.  

But the FAA also said that Kentucky State Police did not obtain a waiver to fly drones over people — a possible violation of FAA regulation chapter 107.39. However, under the certificate police are allowed to fly over human beings  “where it is necessary to safeguard human life.”

Penalties for violating the rules depend on the circumstances of the flight. The agency can issue a fine or suspend a drone operator’s certificates, according to the FAA. 

Kentucky State Police

Over the last decade, the FAA has increasingly regulated the use of drones to protect people and airspace. That includes limits on flying at night, flying over crowds and flying outside the line of sight of a drone operator or spotter, according to the FAA.  

“More and more people have access to unmanned aerial vehicle technology so it becomes a clearer threat to health and safety to have people flying without any kind of regulation,” said Adrian Lauf, a University of Louisville associate professor who works with drone systems.

WFPL shared footage with Lauf that he said could violate FAA rules, which prohibits flying drones over people in most situations. Lauf said the rules are designed to protect people because drones are heavy, and could hurt someone if they fall out of the sky.

“There have been a number of cases over the years where people were flying in urban environments and accidents happened because a quad (copter) struck a building, fell down and hit somebody,” Lauf said.

WFPL News asked KSP about possible FAA violations. In response, Lawson incorrectly described the FAA certificate of authorization as a “waiver” and said their drone operators’ actions were legal because “law enforcement is also a lifesaving operation.”

Police Use Of Force

Shameka Parrish-Wright remembered that first Sunday after protests began, May 31. That evening police warned the crowd to disperse before firing crowd control weapons, she said. But after reviewing the drone footage, she doesn’t understand why police fired their weapons. 

“It’s amazing to see it from that angle because when you are on the ground, all you know is, you look around and you and see tear gas coming and everybody starts to run so you join in. You don’t even know what happened first,” Parrish-Wright said. “So, to see it from that view, there’s no way that they can look at that and say the crowd provoked it.”

Both KSP and LMPD also declined to comment on their use of force during protests.

Downtown was beaten and battered. The last shards of broken glass missed in the cleanup the day before still shimmered on the concrete, The King Louis XVI statue still stood — minus a hand — beside a sprawling tag across Sixth and Jefferson streets spelling out “F**K THE PIGS.” 

As the sun set, hundreds of protesters stood in and around Jefferson Square Park. Police equipped with riot gear and batons stood in lines beside National Guard Humvees on Sixth Street.  

KSP caught the moment with a drone. Police fire what appears to be a flash bang over the crowd. Many in the crowd walk at a brisk clip east on Liberty away from police. 

Fearing she wouldn’t have time to leave before police began firing tear gas and pepper rounds, Parrish-Wright jumped into a friend’s car parked beside Jefferson Square Park. She says she watched “in horror” as police chased people back then recorded police arresting a  man who carried a leaf blower

“They were going to get the first person they could catch and they were going to give them the worst beatdown, and they did that,”  Parrish-Wright said. “They did not know we were in the car.”

The video shot by Parrish-Wright shows police swarming the man.

In the meantime, the drone follows the crowd as people begin to run from police firing canisters of smoke and gas. Some protesters stop to grab the canisters and throw them back toward police. Just one minute after police fire the first flash bang, the camera pans down to show police have claimed the square. 

Kentucky State Police

Kentucky State Police in Jefferson Square Park on May 31, 2020.

Visual Media Producer J. Tyler Franklin contributed to this story.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.