Life is imitating art with the advent of drones. Until recently, drones were only seen as science fiction depicted in the popular syfy show SG-1, where drones are used by advanced alien cultures, the evil Goa’ulds.
The general public first learned about drones when the computer operated unmanned planes were used as spy weapons and later to target terrorists in Afghanistan in missile strikes. Drone strikes are now a common occurrence that many people accept as the cost of war.
It’s not unusual that military weapons and techniques trickle down to the public and it was only a matter of time before the lure of drones snagged police forces.
Financially strapped law enforcement leaders are always looking for more effective ways to fight crime. The drone may be a solution for many police and sheriff departments as the economy continues to tank, budgets are cut deeper and the threat of crime continues to rise.
How Can Drones Help Police?
Keeping officers out of life-threatening situations and saving the cost of operating a helicopter are just a couple of the many attractions a drone has for modern police departments. Drone capabilities include video recording, tracking criminals and others via heat detection systems that map out heat signature, and even finding those unfortunate enough to get lost in the woods. (1)
All of these features make a drone highly desirable for over-worked, under-staffed and under-financed law enforcement officers. So why is there a rush by many lawmakers to draft new laws to stipulate how and when drones can be used by the eager police? Why would anyone deny the police complete use of such advance technology?
That’s simple – the risk of abuse.
All across America, small towns and state officials are taking a harder look at how drones can and should be used against their own citizens. The biggest danger to personal liberties and freedom is the development of a police state mentality that eagerly embraces government surveillance. Many of those in favor of police drones cite that the public is already under surveillance via street and building cams.
Some people fear the power and control police gain by using drones is just too great and opens the door to a temptation of abuse. Many believe that it would become normal for police to monitor the actions of any private citizen they suspected of a crime or even for something as trivial as demonstrating opposing political ideologies.
George Orwell’s book 1984 (published in 1950) where the iconic dictator Big Brother saw everything via video feeds and other technological gadgetry is quickly becoming more than a fictional futuristic tale of government surveillance. Modern technology has transformed Orwell into a prophet.
Whether you’re pro or con on the issue, one thing cannot be denied and that’s the value of police car dashboard cams. These tamper-proof videos have exonerated many false claims against police and protected citizens from unethical police officers.
City Officials versus Police Officers
The battle between police officers using surveillance technology and city officials determined to limit such use is growing.
The New York Times recently reported that the city of Charlottesville, Virginia only “permits the police to install cameras temporarily in areas known for drug dealing, but it has rebuffed a police request to install cameras along its downtown shopping corridor”.
The city also doesn’t use traffic light cameras, so the idea that police could ever hope to add a drone to their department isn’t even feasible. In fact, February 5, 2013, the US News reported that Charlottesville was the first city to pass an anti-drone resolution. (2)
On April 27, 2012, the Seattle Times reported that the police department had given a public demonstration of one of their two new drones purchased with a regional Homeland Security grant.
The motivation for the purchase was not just for criminal activity, but for use during natural disasters. The police believed that once the public witnessed how the drone would be used, public opposition would end. (3)
The demo had the opposite effect and gave voice to a stronger outcry. On February 23, 2013, Mayor Mike McGinn responded with a meeting and proposition to go up for a public vote that regulated drone use. The day after the town meeting, however, McGinn surprised everyone by announcing a ban against using drones. (4)
The national debate and individual town battles over the use of drones has prompted congress to introduce a bill to limit the use of drones in America for emergency situations and “imminent threats”.
The Preserving American Privacy Act bill also stipulates that drone use cannot be armed with weapons; require the issuing of a warrant to a target within 10 days of surveillance unless such notification would interfere with the investigation.
A previous anti-drone bill never made it out of committee. Many supporters believe the current debate and banning of drone use across America will bolster the passing of the current incarnation of the bill. (5)
In October 2012, ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) responded to a congressional order, that the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) must change the rules of airspace to accommodate police use of drones.
The ACLU response was a recommendation for the limitation of drone use and data retention, call for policy changes, ban on all form of weapons, better abuse prevention and accountability by law enforcement. (6)
The Fear of Drones Warranted
The ACLU warns that the current drone program that targets and kills anyone outside the US determined to be a terrorist or enemy has no oversight beyond the “executive branch, and essential details about the program remain secret, including what criteria are used to put people on CIA and military kill lists or how much evidence is required.” (7)
Arguments for police using drones as a way to better serve and defend Americans against growing threats fall short against the other side of the argument. That side may be more frightening than domestic terror. While the use of police drones could easily create a safer and more secure America, it could also open the doors that lead to a true Orwellian nation.
References & Image Credits:
(1) New York Times
(2) US News
(3) Seattle Times
(4) Seattle Times
(5) The Verge
(6) American Civil Liberties Union
(7) ACLU, Targeted Killings
(9) Dave Wirth
(10) Acclaim Images