Police Officer Drone

July 15th, 2013 by CHHS RAs

By Lyra Correa, CHHS Research Assistant

Although local police will probably not be able to use “hell fire” missiles to combat the Black Guerilla Family in Baltimore City, as one writer in a recent Baltimore Sun Op-Ed suggests, having drones assist local police in tackling the increased gang and gun violence cannot be easily dismissed. The reality is that drones are already being used all over the country by local police departments and first responders.

Law enforcement has recognized that drones can be used to their benefit in various ways: fighting gang violence, gun violence, search and rescue, surveillance, border patrol, and disaster response. Drones can record video images and produce heat maps. They can also be used to track fleeing criminals and may have been able to assist in the capture of the Boston Bombers. Drone technology is rapidly evolving and is already reshaping disaster response, crisis management and tactical operations. For budget-strapped police departments, they are more affordable than hiring new policeman and buying helicopters.

Although drones are versatile machines, their use has evoked discomfort within the American public and their continued presence raises a new set of concerns. While most Americans are okay with drone use abroad to help fight the “war on terror,” there is a big concern that domestic use may lead to violations of privacy, abuse, and overzealous policing. A study by the Monmouth University Polling Institute shows an overwhelming support for drones in the context of search and rescue and border control tools, but found that 80% of people expressed some level of concern about privacy infringements by law enforcement drones.

Without any specific limits in place, there is a possibility that local law enforcement, private citizens and/or corporations can misuse drones. For example, drones could record or broadcast audio of a family eating dinner or sitting in their backyard without their knowledge. Many view this type of surveillance as overly invasive, especially if it is inadvertent or unnecessary. Not all states have regulations in place that require local police to have warrants in order to use drones. And for those that do, there are no limits in place that require police to delete any pictures or audio that are not within the scope of their warrant.

In order to quell some of the concern for potential violations by police drones, some cities have banned or limited the scope of their use. Seattle, for example, banned its unmanned aerial program and agreed to return their unused drones to the manufacturer after strong resident protests. Although law enforcement in Charlottesville, VA have never used or own drones, the city council has passed a resolution prohibiting police officers from using any evidence obtained by drones in criminal cases.

Unlike cities, states have been slow to pass similar resolutions. Legislation limiting drone use has been proposed in 39 states, but only a handful of bills have actually passed.  Texas, Virginia, and Florida have recently passed legislation limiting the use of drones by private individuals.

All bills seems to be very strict in their regulation of drone usage so far: The Virginia bill prohibits law enforcement from using drones until July 1, 2015, while the Texas bill, on the other hand, requires a probable cause warrant for law enforcement to use drones and it also completely prohibits drone photography by private citizens. The Florida law also restricts the usage of police drones by banning local law enforcement officials from using drones without a warrant or threat of a terrorist attack, and prohibits the use of information collected by drones to be used as evidence in courts.

Despite the public’s hesitance to support domestic drone usage, the number of drones in the next few years is likely to grow. Prohibiting their use will be extremely difficult given their resourcefulness. Instead of completely banning police drones, regulations can be put in place so we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without making citizens feel like we have become a “surveillance society.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) came out with a series of recommendations states can use while drafting statutes on the domestic use of drones.  Both suggest that drone regulations should require law enforcement to obtain warrants before using drones in investigations to protect the Fourth Amendment rights of its citizens from overbroad or undue data collection. Additionally, the recommendations advise that images captured by the drones should be retained only when there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of a crime or relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial. The ACLU specifically suggests that legislation should also include limits for private citizens and corporations who utilize drones, such as requiring them to be held to established privacy standards. Lastly, when possible, both ACLU and EEF recommend that regulations should also require that domestic drones be subject to open audits or proper oversight in order to prevent misuse.

While not exactly what the Baltimore Sun Op-Ed writer had in mind, drones could be very useful in helping to eliminate the city’s gang problem. But without any regulations in place, there are too many possibilities for abuse. Maryland should enact a law that protects the privacy and rights of its citizens before police are allowed to use drones.  By putting proper laws in place, Maryland is ensuring that drones are used responsibly by law enforcement, first responders, and even private citizens.

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