Puget Sound alum involved in dispute over drone

Pictured: A Security Services van parked on campus — Photo credit to Aidan Regan

On the morning of Feb. 19, Alexander Harris ’18 was testing a multi-rotor-helicopter that they had programmed and built on Karlen Quad when they were approached by the University’s Security Services Director Todd Badham and Associate Director of Security Fred Creek. According to Harris, Creek “immediately began yelling in my ear screaming ‘hey’ and ‘stop.’”

Harris had done some research before their flight and was unable to find a policy anywhere online or in the student handbook that was against model aircrafts being used on campus. Additionally, they had legally registered the model aircraft with the Federal Aviation Administration. They are currently auditing two classes at Puget Sound: a computer architecture class and an assembly language class. Therefore, they believed that they had permission to fly their multi-rotor-helicopter. “I do have an educational interest in model aircraft,” Harris wrote in an email.

In addition, Harris had seen the University publish on Facebook pictures taken by a model aircraft that can be found under the username @overtacoma. Harris’ model aircraft is similar to the @overtacoma one in that it also has a camera; however, the camera was not being used at the time of the incident.

After landing their aircraft safely, Harris was told by Badham and Creek that there was a policy against flying aircrafts on campus, which Harris could not find.

“The university has no current policy governing the use of drones. We do however, ask that they not be used on university property (for safety and privacy reasons) unless pre-authorization has been obtained,” Badham wrote in an email.

“Creek and Badham demanded my identification, I responded by asserting my Fourth Amendment Right,” Harris said. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.

Following this, “Fred Creek immediately decided to call Tacoma Police emergency response,” Harris wrote. The police also asked for Harris’ identification, and Harris responded in the same way they did to Security Services, by asserting their Fourth Amendment right. “The police then told me that I must ‘leave immediately’ and that I am ‘banned from campus,’” Harris wrote.

While the drone industry is new and developing rapidly, it is questionable how much of a threat a multi-rotor-helicopter flown by a student in a grassy area and at a safe distance from any buildings can cause.

“Although I got the sense that [Badham] was disapproving of what was being done, he did not step in to protect me. To tell Fred Creek that what he was doing is wrong. He is effectively calling an emergency police response to violate my Fourth Amendment right. He just stayed quiet,” Harris said.

The Trail reached out to Badham for comment on the incident, but he responded, “I have no information I can provide about this situation.” Creek also responded in the same manner when contacted.

Harris’ friend Kristen Lee, a third-year Puget Sound student, commented on Badham’s role in the situation. According to her, he was present but didn’t take any action to protect Harris or communicate with them after the incident. “To me this is almost a form of him denying responsibility. In a sense that he believes that he has not done something wrong,” she said.

This was not the only incident Harris has had with Security Services. Harris and Lee had been playing with their dog when they were approached by Professor Neşe Devenot, then a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University, and then a member of Security Services.

“We were charged with health and safety violation, harassment of faculty,” Harris said. The professor accused them of threatening her with their dog’s toy. According to Harris, this incident almost led to their expulsion and a lengthy report against them. However, the report was dismissed for lack of evidence.

Lee pointed to diversity among Security Services staff as one of the factors contributing to tension between Security Services and people of color: “Of the 18 staff listed on Security Service’s page, only 3 officers of color and none at a leadership position,” Lee wrote. Harris’ incident demonstrates that there is still a lot of work to be done so that everyone on this campus is protected equally and feels safe.