Police Drones Take to the Sky – Are Your Liberties At Risk?

Written by Jason Simpkins
Posted December 7, 2018

In Daytona Beach, Florida, a 23-year-old burglar was spotted pacing around someone’s pool. When two police officers arrived on the scene, he bolted. And he almost got away.


The suspect darted towards a neighboring house and climbed on top of a shed. From there, he made it onto the roof of the house. And then in a Bond-villain-style escape, he leapt from roof to roof and tree to tree, eluding capture.

It was a shrewd escape and the police would have lost him entirely if not for the assistance of an aerial drone.

It was the Daytona Beach P.D.’s first ever drone-assisted arrest, but apprehensions like these are becoming increasingly common.

In Washington state, police used a drone to find a suspect who’d used wire cutters to break into a car impound.

And in New York state, police chased down a couple of carjackers but lost one of the suspects when the vehicle crashed. After an hour of searching, it’d grown dark. So they called in a drone with a thermal imaging camera and found the thief hiding in a swampy, tall grass field behind a FedEx building.

Get ready to hear more stories like these, because they’re about to become routine.

Across the country, more than 900 state and local police, fire, and emergency units use drones. And that number is growing rapidly.

Los Angeles rolled out a one-year pilot program last year. With an eye towards privacy concerns, the drones’ use was limited to "a handful of tactical situations, searches or natural disasters," and each drone flight required approval by a "high-ranking officer on a case-by-case basis."

L.A. was the largest city to deploy such a program until New York City joined earlier this week.

The City That Never Sleeps will now constantly be watching, having added 14 drones to its police force.

Eleven of the drones are small quadcopters that will be used for tactical operations. Two are larger, weather-resistant quadcopters with a zoom camera and thermal imaging capabilities. Another quadcopter will be used for training and testing purposes.

The drones will be used to map crime scenes, watch over large events, and aid search-and-rescue operations. They could also be used for crime scene documentation, HAZMAT incidents, hostage situations, and "other emergency situations" with proper approval.

The NYPD said the drones will not be used for traffic enforcement or routine patrol. Nor will they be equipped with weapons. They also insist the machines won’t be used for “warrantless surveillance.”

However, citizens will just have to take them at their word, because police officials rejected recommendations that would require them to regularly disclose how often the drones are used and why.

And that’s the rub.

Drones are valuable tools for law enforcement, no doubt. But there’s a legitimate concern about unconstitutional search and seizure.

It’s an issue that’s also being grappled with in Florida where Rep. Clay Yarborough, a Jacksonville Republican, recently filed a new drone bill.

The bill would allow law enforcement to use unmanned aircraft as a “tool in the toolbox” to get perspective on traffic accidents, collect evidence, and to assist in crowd control at public events. But Kara Gross, an ACLU official, says restrictions are inadequate.

“In order to ensure that drones are not used to circumvent the judicial warrant requirement, an amendment would need to be added ensuring that such activity was pursuant to a probable cause warrant or a judicially recognized exception to warrant requirements,” she said.

Indeed, without adequate safeguards, there’s no way to ensure the drones aren’t being used to peer into backyards, windows, or cars.

Unfortunately for Fourth Amendment enthusiasts, though, the genie is out of the bottle on this one. Police drones are only going to multiply from here on out.

Just as with guns, we’ll have to trust cops to use them responsibly... And just as with guns, many officers will betray that trust.

But in the end, there’s no taking them back.

Fight on,

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Jason Simpkins

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Jason Simpkins is Assistant Managing Editor of the Outsider Club and Investment Director of Wall Street's Proving Ground, a financial advisory focused on security companies and defense contractors. For more on Jason, check out his editor's page. 

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