Theodore Decker: Would police drones be too intrusive?

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In the not-too-distant future, two buddies belly up to the bar and begin their usual banter about humdrum daily topics such as the weather, the lackluster performances of their favorite sports teams or, in this particular instance, the central Ohio debut of law enforcement drones armed with stun guns and laser beams.

“I predicted this day was coming,” Buddy No. 1 says. “When all of this started to come together around here, I said we had to be careful before it got out of hand.”

“I recall nothing of the sort,” says Buddy No. 2, egging his pal on.

“The heck you don’t. I pointed out my growing unease with the use of drones by emergency services agencies years ago.

“Back in June 2019,” he continues, “some officials in southern Delaware County started a pilot program where a private drone company synced its drones to the county’s 911 system. The drones flew to the locations of certain calls and shot real-time video of the scenes well ahead of emergency responders.”

“Why do you have a problem with that?” asks Buddy No. 2.

“For starters, I’m not sure I like the idea of a private company responding to 911 calls before police and firefighters do, even if the powers that be have decided it is for a good cause.”

“You’re overreacting. In the years since 2019, drones have been running on all sorts of calls in the U.S., including police calls. They’ve found escaped prisoners and wandering Alzheimer’s patients. They’ve helped officers pinpoint and arrest barricaded gunmen, and they’ve kept a watchful eye on the crowds at big events.”

“All true,” Buddy No. 1 replies. “And now we have law enforcement drones armed with stun guns and blinding lasers flying around.”

Those drones, he reminds Buddy No. 2, were developed for Russian security forces and were unveiled in May 2019, according to the Russian news agency Interfax. They weighed about 2 pounds and were equipped with a remote stun gun as well as a blinding LED or laser that caused a target to lose sight temporarily without permanent harm. They also could be outfitted with loudspeakers, a siren and thermal imaging, Interfax reported at the time.

“What’s the big deal about that?” asks buddy No. 2. “Sounds like they might be great tools to keep officers, and suspects, alive.”

“Look, new technology always promises to make our lives easier and more enjoyable, and these drones can provide real benefits. They also provide the opportunity for some pretty egregious privacy abuses. That risk must be mitigated. I think you’d agree that it would be tough to miss a police helicopter hovering outside your bedroom window. But a whisper-quiet drone? And what happens when one of these things goes haywire and starts following an innocent person around and blinds him with a laser beam?”

“Save the drama for your mama,” his pal says. “Your smartphone knows more about you than some police drone will.”

“Maybe so,” says Buddy No. 1. “But the worst my phone might do is persuade me to buy stuff I don’t need, not zap me with an electroshock weapon.”

But his indignation is fading; this battle was lost long ago, probably well before 2019. He is, in many ways, complicit.

“Let’s get out of here,” he says. “Google is telling me that the drive home will be twice as long as usual. We don’t want to miss ‘Live PD’ on A&E. Maybe they’ll have some killer drone footage.”

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