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The Phoenix 30 quad-copter is one of the drones being marketed to police department by Maryland company UAV Solutions, Inc.
The Phoenix 30 quad-copter is one of the drones being marketed to police department by Maryland company UAV Solutions, Inc. (Baltimore Sun)

Drones can be a good crime-fighting tool — with some parameters.

Police departments throughout Maryland have started to use the small, unmanned aircraft to find missing children, investigate crashes and photograph crime scenes. In those ways, drones can help police better do their jobs.

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But we expect the use of drones will naturally expand over time to include other policing duties, especially as larger police departments incorporate them. As this happens, concerns about privacy are bound to grow. There need to be rules out in place to protect against abuses.

The Supreme Court ruled in Florida v. Riley that citizens’ privacy isn’t protected when airplanes and helicopters observe bad behavior from public airways, even when it is happening on private property. But others argue that the use of drones raises concerns, such protection against unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.

It’s one thing to fly over a large wooded area to find a child who got lost camping, or to survey an area after a hurricane or heavy rain, or to check out the scene of a highway accident during rush hour. But is it OK to use a drone to peer into the window of a house to see if someone is inside? Or to fly into someone’s fenced backyard to collect evidence?

Around the country, at least 18 states have passed laws that require police to obtain a warrant before using a drone for surveillance or searches. Maryland law does not require police to get a warrant to use a drone; some lawmakers have tried to change this with no success.

While we don’t think police should require a warrant in every case, it is also not a good idea for drones to be used unfettered, either. Maryland lawmakers should adopt standards — like banning drones that include weapons or facial recognition software.

The Phoenix 30 quad-copter is one of the drones being marketed to police department by Maryland company UAV Solutions, Inc.
The Phoenix 30 quad-copter is one of the drones being marketed to police department by Maryland company UAV Solutions, Inc. (Baltimore Sun)

Some Maryland police departments have put restrictions in place, while others are operating under no regulations.

In Carroll County, the police department specifies when drones can be used, say for instance, during a barricade and hostage situation or when tracking suspects fleeing from the scene of a crime. The drones can’t be used to establish probable cause for a search warrant and can’t be flown over crowds “except during emergency situations."

State lawmakers also must require transparency in drone use. One of the uses Anne Arundel County police cite is “extraordinary tactical uses,” but they decline to define those uses. It seems citizens have the right to know in what kinds of investigations drones are being deployed.

We don’t see the same problems with drones as with the surveillance planes an Ohio company wants to bring to Baltimore. The drones are controlled by local law enforcement and they collect relatively limited data. They’re also proven and widely tested.

In Maryland, police already uses helicopters to help solve crimes, locate suspects and find illegal dirt bikes stored in backyards. When a veteran police officer was shot outside his Northeast Baltimore last summer, the Foxtrot helicopter helped direct officers and emergency personal around traffic on their way to the hospital.

Drones could be used in similar ways. But we also see opportunity for police to abuse the use of drones, which are smaller and harder to detect to a hovering helicopter. That is something citizens should be concerned about in Baltimore and other jurisdictions where police have a trust issue with the community.

Baltimore has not gotten into the business of using drones, but it is something they could consider as they work to get a handle on escalating violence. We urge the City Council to proactively adopt restrictions, so the devices are not used indiscriminately.

As the Baltimore Police Department continues to face a crippling manpower shortage anything that can help officers do their jobs easier is worth a look. Drones can make it so cops don’t have to go into dangerous places. They can also fit where a officer might not and move faster than a cop on a foot chase. With the right rules and protocols, drones can be an effective way to fight crime without violating people’s right.

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