Eyes in the sky [Editorial]

Police departments in Maryland and across the country are weighing the costs and benefits of using unmanned aerial vehicles as aids in the fight against crime. There are still many unanswered questions regarding the new technology's potential impact on citizens' privacy rights as well as safety concerns related to their sharing airspace with civilian and military aircraft. Those issues will all require careful study before drones can be deployed as a widely available law-enforcement tool. But it already seems clear that some missions are likely to be performed more safely and efficiently by machines than by cops on the beat and that eventually their use will become routine.

We can think of a number of examples of situations where drones might have given officers an edge they do not presently enjoy. For instance, the recent deaths of two passengers traveling by car in Baltimore who were hit at an intersection by a motorist fleeing police quite possibly could have been avoided if the officers hadn't felt compelled to pursue the suspect through the streets in a high speed chase. Following the speeding vehicle's whereabouts from the video of a drone hovering overhead might have allowed them to bide their time until it was safe to take the suspect into custody.


Likewise, Baltimore already has hundreds of pole-mounted security cameras located around downtown and in high-crime neighborhoods where criminals are known to congregate. But it still takes officers precious minutes to arrive on the scene when a shooting or a robbery occurs, and by then the perpetrators — and sometimes the victims as well — have left the scene and vanished. A drone dispatched to the area before police arrive there would have a better chance of spotting the individuals involved as well as locating and collecting evidence from the crime scene while it was still fresh.

Drones could also serve law-enforcement in proactive ways by providing real-time intelligence about rapidly evolving situations such as mass shootings, hostage rescue operations and other high-risk missions. They could be especially valuable in coordinating search and rescue operations, monitoring hazmat incidents and directing first-responders confronted with emergencies such as fires, floods, traffic accidents and weather-related road closures. And like dashboard cameras in police cruisers and the tiny video devices worn on officers' uniforms, their presence would signal that routine interactions between officers and the public are being recorded. That, in turn, acts as a deterrent for citizens tempted to escalate a confrontation, but it's also a restraining element on the behavior of the police themselves. Complaints of excessive use of force by police drop dramatically when officers are wearing cameras.


None of this will happen overnight. The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the nation's airspace, is working on rules to ensure that drones operated by businesses and government agencies of all types can operate safely in proximity to other aircraft while minimizing the danger of collisions. So far, the FAA has issued some 1,400 permits to operate unmanned aircraft, most of them to police departments and other government agencies. Next year the FAA is expected to release new rules governing the operation of commercial drones.

There are also legal implications to drone use related to privacy issues that affect both government and commercial businesses. For example, is evidence from a drug bust admissible in court if it was collected by a drone that spotted the narcotics while peeking through the window of a suspect's home? Is it an unlawful search and seizure if police failed to first get a warrant for probable cause? What about private citizens photographed without their knowledge; do they have the right to know how their images will be used?

Nobody is comfortable with the idea of constantly being watched by the camera's impersonal, all-seeing eye. It smacks of some ubiquitous Big Brother more suited to totalitarian dictatorships than to Western liberal democracy. The emergence of an ever more powerful surveillance state monitored by secretive intelligence agencies ought to give pause to anyone concerned by the government's increasing ability to eavesdrop on the most personal aspects of citizens' private lives.

But the reality is we are more dependent every day on visual imagery to make sense of events, whether they occur in front of the house around the corner or halfway around the globe. It's how we get our news, record our family gatherings and document the interesting places we visit. Just as the mug shot transformed police work after the invention of the still camera in the mid-19th century, so the video-equipped drone is effecting a similar revolution in law-enforcement today. Eventually, the courts will have to sort out the legal issues regarding the police use of drones, but whatever happens there's no turning back the clock.

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