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Should Police Departments Use Drones

Published by Slashdot on Sun, 09 Jun 2024

Wired visits Chula Vista, California (population: 275,487)where since 2018 drones have been dispatched by police "teleoperators" monitoring 911 calls. ("Noise complaints, car accidents, overdoses, domestic disputes...") After nearly 20,000 drone flights, it's become the envy of other police departments, according to Wired's article, as other police departments "look to expand their use of unmanned aerial aircraft."The [Chula Vista] department says that its drones provide officers with critical intelligence about incidents they are responding to ahead of initiating in-person contactwhich the CVPD says has reduced unnecessary police contacts, decreased response times, and saved lives. But a WIRED investigation paints a complicated picture of the trade-offs between public safety and privacy. In Chula Vista, drone flight paths trace a map of the city's inequality, with poorer residents experiencing far more exposure to the drones' cameras and rotors than their wealthier counterparts, a WIRED analysis of nearly 10,000 drone flight records from July 2021 to September 2023 found. The drones, often dispatched for serious incidents like reports of armed individuals, are also routinely deployed for minor issues such as shoplifting, vandalism, and loud music. [Drones are sent in response to about 1 in every 14 calls.] Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, the city even used drones to broadcast public service announcements to homeless encampments. Despite the police promoting the benefits of the "Drone as First Responder" program, residents who encounter the technology day-to-day report feeling constantly watched. Some say they are afraid to spend time in their backyards; they fear that the machines are following them down the street, spying on them while they use the public pool or change their clothes. One resident says that he was so worried that the drones were harassing him that he went to the emergency room for severe depression and exhaustion. [A 60-year-old professor told Wired that the sound of drones kept them awake at night.] The police drones, equipped with cameras and zoom lenses powerful enough to capture faces clearly and constantly recording while in flight, have amassed hundreds of hours of video footage of the city's residents. Their flight paths routinely take them over backyards and above public pools, high schools, hospitals, churches, mosques, immigration law firms, and even the city's Planned Parenthood facility. Privacy advocates argue that the extensive footage captured by the drones makes it difficult to distinguish between flights responding to specific incidents and mass surveillance from the sky. Department secrecy around the recordings remains the subject of ongoing litigation... At the time of our analysis, approximately one in 10 drone flights listed on the department's transparency portal lacked a stated purpose and could not be connected to any relevant 911 call.Read more of this story at Slashdot.
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