Technology may have transformed human life and made it more bearable but its application is not without overt and divisive controversy. The ongoing debate on drones is a typical example of the polarizing nature of some technological developments. While law enforcement officers appreciate and advocate the use of drones in fighting crime because they regard this technology as being efficient and effective, many civilians are vehemently opposed to drones because this novel tool is perceived to infringe on privacy rights.
In order to appreciate the support or dissent that defines this controversial technology, it is crucial that one understands drones. Cole and Wright define a drone as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) which can be directed from the ground by designated personnel or which can fly independently following a programme that has been pre-planned (“What are Drones?”). The authors also identify two broad classes of drones – those that are utilized for scouting and scrutiny and the ones used for military purposes like carrying bombs and missiles.
Ball observes that drones can be used to accomplish various developmental and civilian missions as indicated. In agriculture, these unmanned aerial vehicles can be used to monitor crops’ progress and detect pests and diseases thus ensuring that farmers realize increased quality yields. In mining, prospecting companies can use drones to identify potential mineral sources and also to inspect mines. Similarly, drones are used in construction sites to track progress and to take photographs. Another important use of drones is in infrastructure projects like pipelines and power-lines which need constant inspection to ensure any leakages or defects are detected and rectified in time. Moreover, drones can be utilized in wildlife management through tracking the movement of animals, detecting and deterring poachers and studying behavioral patterns. In addition, drones can come in handy when monitoring and studying storms through sending crucial information on the onset and development of such phenomena. Finally, drones can be used in search and rescue operations because of their ability to access wide and secluded areas. Consequently, the importance of drones to humanity cannot be overemphasized.
It is however, the use of drones by the police for pertinent reasons that has resulted in controversy. This paper addresses the utilization of drones by law enforcement agencies and delves into the diverging voices that either support or oppose this kind of usage. Articles by various authors are analyzed to reveal their inherent divergent opinions and those of society concerning police drones. In the final analysis, each of the conflicting parties is entitled to their opinions and must be listened to because drones have an impact on the entire society.
Clarrigde contributes to this debate in an article in The Seattle Times entitled “Use of Drones by Seattle Police Strikes a Nerve” in which she argues that drones can be used by police to deal with crime and prevent future occurrences of such social evils. According to this writer the police insist that their intention with drones is to provide photos in murder and traffic-related cases, conduct search and rescue operations and monitor and report on natural hazards like typhoons and fires. Evidently, these are activities that are meant to protect civilians from environmental hazards and criminals and are therefore at the core of police work. One would expect that implementation of these measures will result in greater safety for members of the public.
Postel, in an article entitled “State Police Increasingly Turn to Drones to Monitor U.S. Citizens”, in Policymic notes that drones have succeeded where conventional methods of fighting crime have failed (Postel). She cites a case in North Dakota where a drone was used by policemen to track and return stolen cows and also the arrest of the criminals responsible. Incidentally, the local sheriff had been unable to accomplish the same job using the normal police procedure. Drones were able to track the path taken by the criminals and the animals from the sky and to report back to ground teams. This incident underlines the deficiencies inherent in conventional police operations which can be filled by drones. It underscores the dire need for more sophisticated crime-fighting techniques and drones can come in handy to fill such gaps.
Postel further observes that drones reduce the dangers law enforcement officers are exposed to in the course of their duties. This is true when compared to helicopters which can be shot at from the ground and result in the death of officers. One can understand this argument considering that criminals are becoming more sophisticated and can ambush law enforcement officers. It is important that police officers be in possession of information that puts them at a vantage point in relation to criminals. This is the advantage afforded by drones when placed in the hands of police officers.
Postel’s resourcefulness in this debate is evident when she asserts that drones can supplement or complement other methods of surveillance for police. For example, drones were used in the London Olympics in addition to CCTV (Close Circuit Television) cameras as part of additional aerial reconnaissance. This arguments is also advanced in a dissimilar way by Sengupta who observes that in different states in the US, policemen are allowed to use CCTV cameras but not drones yet the two technologies are premised on the same philosophy. These arguments are logical considering that CCTV cameras do not provide the aerial and widespread view that drones can afford law enforcement officers. CCTVs are also stationed at specific points while drones are mobile and versatile.
Postel further postulates that drones can be fitted with sound cannons and used to disperse protestors during demonstrations. This can help curb the current global phenomenon where hordes of demonstrators wreak havoc in cities, destroying property and killing people. Postel’s idea is significant especially when applied to situations in which demonstrations and protests run the risk of getting out of hand but not in peaceful demonstrations. This additional application of drones is vital although it can expose implementers to civil suits from human rights activists especially if such usage results in injury to protestors.
On his part, Lowry, in an article titled “Drones in Utah: Invasion of Privacy of Protection Against Crime?” in Deseret News notes that drones can come in handy in cases where criminals are on the run or where they cultivate drugs especially in secluded forested areas. He cites different personalities both in civilian ranks and official circles who feel that drones can be utilized efficiently in fighting crime. The understanding here is that in spite of perceived negative impacts of drones in relation to civilian privacy, drones are an effective tool that police can be allowed to use within confines of the law. Moreover, police departments insist that they intend to use drones lawfully. The argument is that civilians should not expect drones to fly near their windows or in any way infringe on privacy rights. Drones will actually increase security for citizens if used by the police. One would therefore expect that the average citizen would embrace the use of drones in police work.
Lowry further observes that drones are easy to manipulate and manage and the police will not require a lot of training to use them. This implies that there will be very little in terms of operational expenditure and training just as Postel had observed. The implication here is that this is an additional crime-fighting mechanism that is efficient and effective but incidentally inexpensive as compared to other strategies. Launching and monitoring of drones is not complicated and training of personnel to operate drones would take a relatively shorter duration than learning to fly helicopters for example. The gap here is whether criminals cannot take advantage of this ease of operation to terrorize law enforcers and civilians using drones.
In light of all these positive aspects of drones, Postel feels that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will need to review requests for operation of drones by police departments in different states. Eventually, the writer believes police departments should be allowed to use drones in law enforcement. Substantively, the benefits to be derived from use of drones are too many and significant to be sacrificed at the altar of privacy concerns. This is what Postel believes lawmakers should bear in mind. Whether the latter will side with the police or civilians (who voted them into office) remains to be seen.
There are however very strong opinions against the use of drones by the police from opposing quarters. Most of the aversion to drones emanates from individuals and civil rights groups who argue that the use of drones will compromise citizen’s privacy irrespective of whether police drones collect this information deliberately or inadvertently. Sengupta observes that civilians have expressed dread of what they perceive to be a new version of Big Brother. The author argues that civilians dread the use of drones for surveillance ostensibly because it will impinge on their privacy. Drones are perceived as government surveillance from the sky. There is a lot of fear that police officers will not restrict themselves to spying on criminals and arresting them but will take advantage of the situation to collect private data on innocent civilians. Opposition to drones, therefore, appears to be based on profound suspicion of police intentions.
Another negative aspect of drones is advanced by Lowry who observes that drones can have dangerous ramifications if they fall into dangerous hands of criminals. One can imagine the damage that would be occasioned if criminals were able to secretly monitor the activities of civilians and law enforcement officers. This would mean that many crimes would be committed and the police and civilians would be helpless since criminals would be well ahead with relevant information on where and when to attack. Manifestly, as has been observed previously, drones are easy to learn and use and criminals would love the prospect of having this technology at their disposal.
Clarridge observes that the opposition to drones has reached such a high level that Seattle Police Department officials were booed down during a public meeting by civilians who expressed strong reservations to the use of drones by the police. The situation in California is not different with members of the public organizing a press conference at the Oakland City Hall to protest the planned deployment of drones by the Sheriff of Alameda County. This is in tandem with Sengupta’s observation of the way the community is increasingly aware and militant towards use of drones by police officers. These actions are indicative of a society that is informed about drones although from different perspectives. For example, Clarridge mentions Mr. Ryan Calo of the University Of Washington School Of Law who expressed fear that the use of drones without concomitant legislation would affect civilian privacy negatively.
It is also significant, as Sengupta notes, that members of the public do not mind using drones for their personal missions. For example, some farmers and rich property owners would want to survey their property to ward off criminals, detect any abnormal behavior or even monitor their crops. What they are opposed to is supposed government surveillance through drones. To Sengupta, the public is not looking at the bigger picture of reduction in crime. The author insinuates that public aversion to drones may be motivated by selfishness and ignorance of the importance of drones to the police. The public ignores the fact that the police are out to protect the former although the proposed methods are not risk-free.
In Postel’s opinion the debate is not about to dissipate. Civilians who feel that their privacy is at risk will continue to protest and call for legislation to curb drone usage. According to Clarridge, the civilian population is nervy and feels that privacy rights are infringed upon. The police will, on the other hand, continue to assert that drones will not be used for illegal or unethical purposes. In other words, the agitation for greater control of drones will not go away any time soon and the rift may grow even wider.
A careful analysis of all these articles will reveal two important veins. The first one is that drones may not be done away with any time soon. This is because they have been proved, both in civilian and military use, to be effective in what they were designed to accomplish. Should humanity reject a whole ingenious technology because a section of the population feels its privacy is threatened? What are implications of not using drones in law enforcement? Which is more important: to apply a technology that might reduce crime levels significantly but raise privacy concerns among citizens or to remain under threat from criminals, as the situation currently is, yet protect privacy rights?
Secondly, all the writers discussed above mention and discuss attempts by civilians to use legal avenues to curb the use of drones. These are legislations that would either do away with drones completely or restrict police use of UAVs. What seems to be the crux of the legal aspect of this debate is the extent to which the police will be restricted in their use of drones. Incidentally, this seems to be the angle the debate is assuming after the realization by majority of citizens that drones may, after all, be good for the security of everyone in society. However, it is clear that at this point, the two adversarial opinions do not seem to be approaching convergence.
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