Future of Policing: Unmanned Drones?

Typically only used in military operations, unmanned drones are seen as the high-tech eye in the sky, a way to wage war without the potential human cost. But now, USA Today reports police agencies across the country are considering the UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) for their own domestic uses, estimating they will be employed by various police departments within five to ten years.

They say potential uses include finding missing people and looking for illegal marijuana crops. The push for increased use is coming as Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans return home with stories of drone effectiveness overseas.

While UAVs have been used by domestic agencies, their use has been limited and typically only used in border regions.

Both Houston and Miami have field tested drones, though they don’t have authorization to use the aircrafts in an official capacity yet. The main concern seems to be flying them in a manner that doesn’t put other aircraft at risk of collision.

In the Miami police tests, they used two drones equipped with cameras for a period of 18 months. There were restrictions, however, that required the drone only go up to 200 feet in the air and stay within 1,000 feet of the operator, restrictions that would likely have to be lifted for the drones to be used effectively according to police needs.

A spokesperson for the Miami department states they would like to use the crafts to “reduce risks to manned aircraft or personnel in circumstances involving a hostage situation or barricaded suspect.”

One has to wonder if the cost of these high tech machines would be balanced by their potentially limited uses or if departments would be forced to expand the uses in order to even employ the drones. Like SWAT battering rams and armored vehicles, would departments feel compelled to use the drones more often than necessary simply to justify their cost?

A surveillance camera in the sky to gain intelligence could be worthwhile for some specific purposes or exigent circumstances, but it’s not likely such a machine will be necessary on any regular basis. And in a time of severe police budget cuts, these extra, and expensive technologies seem questionable.  That is, unless departments create scenarios where the drones can be used, by expanding their uses beyond what they propose now.

Another potential issue is using cameras to observe areas where there is an “expectation of privacy”, for instance a fenced-in back yard. It seems warrants would be necessary in situations like these though such an issue hasn’t yet been addressed by agencies testing the drones.

One researcher at Auburn University believes the drones will become more common within ten years. Time will tell just how common these high tech gadgets become and their potential abuse as police departments look for reasons to use their new “toy”.

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