Aerial drones are law-enforcement tools that need formal oversight
The Seattle Police Department needs to work through the Seattle City Council to put the potential of aerial drones and their privacy issues into regulated perspective.
Seattle Times Editorial
USE of aerial drones by the Seattle Police Department needs formal oversight to establish operating procedures and periodic performance reviews by the Seattle City Council.
Encourage Seattle police to learn about and put the technology to limited, defined uses, but do not leave the door open for what is called mission creep in other settings.
Do it by ordinance, not by policy nods, promises and good intentions.
The council already knows how that works. A contrite assistant Seattle police chief appeared before the council to apologize for not keeping the council better informed on the department's plans for using drones.
These unmanned aircraft systems are hot in law enforcement for lots of reasons, some even related to crime fighting. Money is available from the feds to pay for them, manufacturers are looking for new markets, and, gee, the police and sheriffs in other states have them.
The drones can be equipped with high-resolution cameras, heat sensors and radar that can be employed in search and rescue, fighting wildfires and tactical police operations.
How the gear is used and evolves over time is the issue that raises fundamental privacy concerns. Safety issues with the drones, either aloft in airspace or over populated areas, is also a worry.
Sorting out the legalities of aerial surveillance is a concern. Anyone out in the open does not get much protection from privacy laws. Step outside, and airborne law enforcement trolling for lawbreakers does not need warrants, the courts have said.
Start piling on zoom lens, night vision, see-through imaging and video analytics, and the imperatives for defining privacy, requiring warrants and oversight climb as high as the drones.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington raises good points and questions about usage restrictions, image-retention limits, and regular audits and reviews of drones as a law-enforcement tool.
Give Seattle police the latitude to use drones, but define their limitations via city ordinance.