Among the symbols of advancing technology, heightened focus on security and fears of eroding privacy rights, it’s hard to find a more prominent icon than the drone. Civilian models are technically referred to as unmanned aerial systems, both to be more specific about the aircraft’s uses and in an attempt to create some distance between the image of drones as semi-autonomous agents of government power and surveillance. It was close to inevitable that the issue of drone use by law enforcement would arrive in Fairbanks, as it has in many other U.S. communities. Now that it has, it’s important that strong policies be adopted to balance the police adding a powerful tool to their capabilities for law enforcement with the concerns of the public that such a tool could easily be misused in a way that hurts public liberties and damages the reputation of the police.
The UAS capacity the Fairbanks Police Department is contemplating, asking for $7,000 for UAS equipment as part of a $32,000 federal grant request. That sum fits with a system that would consist of one or two higher-end consumer quadcopter models or their equivalent. It wouldn’t mean replacement of officers on the street with unmanned aircraft, nor would it allow for widespread surveillance. But for those concerned about the creep of devices that can chip away at residents’ privacy, the fact that the police drone’s use would be limited isn’t likely reassuring.
Those concerns are valid. Technology has had great value in helping keep law enforcement officers out of harm’s way — bomb-disposal robots come to mind — but in some circumstances, there have absolutely been cases when officers overstepped the proper use of their equipment, as in the use of military-surplus equipment to respond to protesters in isolated cases in the Lower 48. Even consumer UAS systems have substantial capacity for surveillance, and citizens are right to pay attention and demand accountability when such tools are used by any arm of the government.
At the Fairbanks City Council meeting this month at which the UAS request was discussed, Chief Randall Aragon said that use of the system would be restricted to cases where its benefits to officers and the public is clear, and that each use would likely require his personal approval. That would be wise, and the department and city should be transparent about the circumstances that would allow use of the system.
While it might be helpful to survey the scene of a car accident with a UAS, for instance, to keep officers out of a busy roadway, it wouldn’t be appropriate to use the capabilities of the system to perform surveillance as an end-run around a search warrant.
Used responsibly, unmanned aerial systems can be a powerful tool for law enforcement without unduly impinging on citizens’ rights. But the city should draft policies that ensure that balance is maintained, and residents should speak out so that their concerns are incorporated into the plan.
—Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, June 17, 2016