The LA Times reports that the Seattle Police Department gave the LAPD two drones (the department prefers to use the media-friendly term “unmanned aerial vehicle”), causing officials to assure Californians that the two Draganflyer X6 aircraft will only be deployed for “narrow and prescribed uses” and not for general surveillance of the public.
In a press statement, LAPD spokesperson Andrew Smith told the media that the drones may be deployed to explore building interiors in a hostage situation or instances in which a suspect may be barricaded and dangerous.
The media statement added:
“We wanted to be really up-front with the public that we’re looking at using these down the road. We wanted to make sure it didn’t look like we were trying to sneak these things into action.”
Seattle’s drone gift comes after the city decided that police-led UAV deployment would be less beneficial than old-fashioned community building, leading the SPD to ground the program last year.
According to the Seattle Times, privacy-minded citizens raised a vocal outcry during a public presentation when officials introduced the program.
The American Civil Liberties Union praised the drone dissolution, telling the media:
“It’s a wise decision. Drones would have given police unprecedented abilities to engage in surveillance and intrude on people’s privacy and there was never a strong case made that Seattle needed the drones for public safety.”
Given the many instances of domestic spying by agencies such as the NSA, it comes as no surprise that governmental drone use is causing unrest among American citizens. A 2012 Associated Press poll showed that a significant minority – 33 percent—“worry their privacy will suffer if drones like those used to spy on U.S. enemies overseas become the latest police tool for tracking suspected criminals at home.”
Such concern has led some police departments to publicly distance themselves from perceptions of drone use – in May, the Palo Alto Police Department stressed the point in a misunderstanding about a missing-drone notice.
In response to public concerns, many state legislatures are stepping in to regulate police use of drones. As reported earlier in DroneLife, the Illinois State Senate recently passed a bill that would prohibited police agencies from “using privately-owned drones to gather information they wouldn’t be allowed to collect with their own.” And, in North Carolina, House Representatives are discussing a bill that would address similar privacy concerns.
Legislative action notwithstanding, the ACLU warns that governments and citizens should remain vigilante and push for stronger guidelines to protect civil liberties in the drone era. The group recommends several across-the-board guidelines including:
1. USAGE LIMITS: Drones should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act.
2. DATA RETENTION: Images should be retained only when there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.
3. POLICY: Usage policy on domestic drones should be decided by the public’s representatives, not by police departments, and the policies should be clear, written, and open to the public.
4. ABUSE PREVENTION & ACCOUNTABILITY: Use of domestic drones should be subject to open audits and proper oversight to prevent misuse.
5. WEAPONS: Domestic drones should not be equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons.
Jason is a longstanding contributor to DroneLife with an avid interest in all things tech. He focuses on anti-drone technologies and the public safety sector; police, fire, and search and rescue.
Beginning his career as a journalist in 1996, Jason has since written and edited thousands of engaging news articles, blog posts, press releases and online content.
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