To drone or not to drone. Is that the question?

I think the question with drones is not whether to deploy them but why, how and when to deploy them.  What are the values and the purpose that shall guide their use?  How will police be held accountable for honoring those values?  It is importantly a question of who police leadership is going to allow into the conversation about the answers.  Before offering my two cents to the answer, allow me to drone on for a few paragraphs about technological change.

First, technologies — the tools and compounds — in and of themselves are not usually the risk.  It’s how as a society we use them.  Starting with rocks and fire it’s always been about we as humans use the stuff we create or discover.  How would life be imaginable today without sharp-edged implements, radiation, gunpowder, dynamite and steel, all fraught with peril when used one way and pillars of modern life when used another?  Even the splitting of the atom, while in a category by itself in my opinion, can be understood in this context.

Every big, systematic change in police technology creates a paradox for police leaders.  The new machine comes with potential for big benefits and big downsides. If we are thoughtful and inclusive we can realize big benefits while minimizing the Murphy’s Law effects. So here’s the major risk I see from the use of drones in municipal policing.  It is not about privacy but about relationships between the community and the police.  This is not a new problem.  It’s been part of the paradox for over 100 years.

Every major technological advance in policing since the turn of the 2oth century has impacted the fundamental police-community relationship.  Too often we accepted destructive effects of the police connection to the community as some sort of price for “progress.”  If you look at the contemporary coverage of many of these historic technical shifts you will see the same types of arguments that Chief Ditson makes in 2013 in the article I copied below about the drone.

“Criminals believe, and with some truth, that if they flee from police officers, officers will not pursue and they will ultimately elude capture,” Dotson wrote in a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration. It was a preliminary step toward seeking approval for unmanned — and unarmed — flight.  “If we are serious about crime reduction strategies, we must look to new technologies which help keep officers and the public safe and apprehend criminals…”

August Vollmer, the early 20th century police reformer whose bust should be displayed in very station house, said that police patrolling in cars would have the very effect that decades later Chief Dotson attributes to the drones.  Paraphrasing a quote from Police Chief magazine in the 1930’s, Vollmer argued that police would be be ever more effective law enforcers because they would surprise offenders by rolling up to them stealthily in their patrol cars.  Not really, right?

When, due to Henry Ford, the automobile became affordable for the police, the leading minds of the day, though not so much Vollmer’s,  fit that new technology into a particular objective. Police reformers in the Progressive Era of American social and political action saw a need to root politics and its related corruptions out of policing.  They saw as impediments to reform, and even sources of corruption, cops walking beats in their own neighborhoods and detectives trolling about in the criminal underworld looking for information.  Along comes the car as the answer to their prayers. They do not seem to have considered the paradox.

Corruption was clearly a critical problem then.  Putting cops in metal boxes took them off the sidewalks and out of local businesses and confined them to the roadways.  Their focus and locus were re-oriented to the motorway.  In an early version of don’t text and drive,  it was you can’t look at the sidewalk and drive.  The police were segregated from the community life swarming around them.  You can’t be corrupted by people you don’t encounter.

Just like their counterparts in the factories where the cars were assembled police experienced a speeded-up work environment and radical new production methods and outputs.  In the factories workers originally built cars in small teams.  Their work looked like artisanry.  Then the assembly line turned these auto builders into autoworkers, who spent their entire shifts repeating at high speed the same small act.  The police officer, instead of being what August Vollmer called “chief of his beat,” that is, problem-solver and leader, became a technician in  law enforcement.  Inspired by the ideas of routinization taking hold in increasingly profitable auto plants, police leaders defined the patrol officer’s job just like that of the autoworker.  The old outputs, and I am admittedly simplifying a little here, were prevention of and intervention in problems of public order and community justice and the absence of harm on the beat.  The new outputs were arrests, citations and effort. Many even measured the number of miles driven on a shift.

With the emergence of the two-way radio and later the telephone, the direct transmission line between cops and community was cut for a century.  With the availability of heat in the cars, and much later, air conditioning, the physical separation was total. No need to even roll down a window.

Police gained liberty from the political influence that did serve as a petri dish for corruption.  (Many of these gains would be lost in the horror show for honest policing that was the Prohibition era.) But the community became “the field” and police and people diverged ever more widely.

Finally, 9-1-1 is the most recent tectonic shift and is as paradoxical in its effects as any.  (I know other IT stuff is a big deal but the effect of 9-1-1 towers over all others)  Prior to the President’s Commission asking AT&T to create a three-digit emergency number, most Americans did not who to call in an emergency.  With the introduction of the 9-1-1 number, police not only developed the greatest service since fresh water in the history of urban human society. They marketed it to perfection.  Soon, everybody knew the number and everyone (or so it seems) called.  Instead of using this marvelous system to triage demand for police service and support problem-solving, we created zero car availability and rapid response.  We raced to get every call as fast as possible by order of priority.  Police developed what George Kelling calls “a culture of hurrying.” Demand was not analyzed for what it told us about the nature of crime and disorder and about thereby better preventing harm, but about how fast you get to this moment’s manifestation of the underlying patterns of crime and disorder.

Of course, we have learned a boatload about demand and  response since the emergence of 9-1-1.  We know today what to ask of a new technology when it appears in our midst.

Droning done, here are my promised two cents.

Every chief should see a golden opportunity to have a conversation with the community about the values and the purpose that should guide deployment of drones. What a great moment to work with our communities to create the values and a broad strategy for why, how and when we will deploy these potentially beneficial and potentially dangerous machines.  

Chiefs can  explain what they believe are the capabilities of this new technology.  They can in consultation with the community create guidelines for the types of situation in which drone deployment shall be appropriate.

Stay tuned.


St. Louis police chief wants drones to monitor city from the sky

ST. LOUIS • In Chief Sam Dotson’s vision of modern policing, a drone would circle Busch Stadium to watch for terrorists, or silently pursue a criminal who thought the chase was over when the officer in the car behind him turned off its red lights and siren.
And Dotson is working to make it happen.
“Criminals believe, and with some truth, that if they flee from police officers, officers will not pursue and they will ultimately elude capture,” Dotson wrote in a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration. It was a preliminary step toward seeking approval for unmanned — and unarmed — flight.
“If we are serious about crime reduction strategies, we must look to new technologies which help keep officers and the public safe and apprehend criminals,” he said in the March 25 correspondence.
Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, whose assent is required, also wrote to the FAA to offer “enthusiastic support.” She declined to elaborate, saying through a spokeswoman: “The letter speaks for itself.”
Dotson said he would seek donations and grants to pay for the miniature airplanes, which run from $60,000 to $300,000 each — pricey, but still cheaper and safer than a helicopter.
Privacy advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union — already grappling with recent news that the FBI has been selectively using drones for surveillance over U.S. soil — are balking at word of Dotson’s contact with the FAA.
“This is a significant expansion of government surveillance,” complained Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “Our laws have not kept up with our privacy rights. Our Fourth Amendment privacy rights aren’t safe from unreasonable search and seizure when you’re looking at drones.”
Dotson said drones are not capable of anything that helicopters don’t already do — or that existing laws don’t already protect.
“This isn’t Big Brother, this is a decision to make everyone in the community safer,” he insisted.
St. Louis is hardly the first police department interested in the technology.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, another privacy advocate, discovered through Freedom of Information requests late last year that dozens of police agencies submitted FAA applications.
In some cases, agencies shelved their programs because of public pressure before even getting off the ground. In Seattle, the mayor ordered the police department to return the devices because of public outrage.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said he thinks drones could provide a safer way to pursue fugitives.
“We’re proceeding in a very cautious way,” he said in an interview a few days ago. “First we must look at the technology and if we decide to use the technology, to what extent it will be used.”
The kind of capabilities Dotson advocates could be years away, said Kurt Frisz, president of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association, which represents police helicopter pilots.
It is one of several groups working with the FAA to develop rules for domestic use of drones that Congress mandated by the end of next year. So far, the FAA has granted permission only to about a half-dozen police departments, mainly in rural areas where drones would not interfere with airports.
Police account for only about 5 percent of drone applicants, who include businesses, universities and news media. The FAA requires that a civilian drone remain within sight of its operator, and fly no higher than 400 feet above ground.
Equipment available within those parameters uses either a battery or small gasoline engine, capable of no more than an hour of flight at a time, Frisz said.
Military drones can remain aloft for 36 hours at a time and can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and require ground crews of hundreds of people, he noted.
Dotson believes it’s only a matter of time before drones can be pre-programmed to cruise for hours and lock on to fleeing vehicles. Since late February, 290 drivers have fled from St. Louis officers and in May the average was two a day, according to the department.
“The automobile didn’t go from the Model T to a Porsche, there were many incremental steps along the way,” Dotson said.
While Congress mandated safety rules for domestic drones, no agency is assigned to privacy issues. A patchwork of state regulations is emerging, and some states have prohibited drones all together.
A bill awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature in Illinois would prohibit police from deploying drones without warrants — except in critical situations — or using photos from them in court. The legislation also would forbid drones from being equipped with weapons.
In April, the Missouri House passed a bill to make the state a “no drone zone,” but it failed in the Senate.
The law would have banned warrantless surveillance via manned or unmanned aircraft, and required journalists to seek permission from property owners before using unmanned aircraft. It also would have required private organizations or state agencies to seek permission for any airborne surveillance.
That proposal sent police into panic mode, fearing that helicopters could be grounded, said Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, who also is business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association.
“It was a nonsolution to a nonproblem,” Roorda said. “But the discussion is far from over.”
Frisz hopes legislators wait for the FAA regulations before considering any more drone laws. He said 39 states have proposed anti-drone legislation.
“A lot of this legislation is a knee-jerk reaction to drone hysteria,” he said. “Let’s see what regulations are going to be before we make laws about something we can’t even do yet.”
Frisz, who also is a St. Louis County police captain, helped craft the Metro Air Support helicopter partnership among his department, the city and St. Charles County. He said he sees drones (he prefers to call them unmanned aerial vehicles) as an expansion of public safety, not a threat to helicopters.
Drones cannot rescue people or deploy officers into scenes, like helicopters. The FAA does not allow drones to fly at night. They are more at the mercy of weather. And, the agency requires each to have an operator and spotter, both with the same credentials.
There also are safety concerns about what happens to people below if radio interference interrupts the controls, or the drone otherwise crashes. For now, their weight is limited to four pounds.
“It’s very attractive to chiefs who want this bright, shiny new object, but at the same time you need to look at what you can do and what can’t you do,” Frisz said.
His chief, Tim Fitch, said he never attends a police conference without a company pitching its latest drone technology. So far, Fitch is not impressed.
“We’re not going to be out in front on this one,” he said. “But it’s certainly something we’re going to keep an eye on.”
The Mesa County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado was one of the first to get FAA approval, and started using drones in 2009, said Benjamin Miller, its program manager.
Private companies provided two battery-operated drones for free that he said otherwise would have cost about $50,000 combined. He said they cost about $25 an hour to operate. (Frisz said a helicopter costs about $250 an hour.) One of Mesa County’s drones can fly for about 15 minutes, the other about an hour. Each can fit in a backpack.
Miller said there seems like a lot of fuss for not a lot of technology. “At the end of the day, you’re going to pull a radio-controlled toy out of a box that can fly for 15 minutes, sometimes not even above the trees,” Miller said. “I found myself thinking, ‘Why in the world am I working with FAA for this?’”
So far, Mesa County has used drones to photograph and create three-dimensional models of crimes scenes, and help search for missing people.
Miller said the fire department and public works division also use them.
The community used to spend about $10,000 on a private plane to conduct an annual government-mandated aerial survey of a landfill. “We did it in about two hours for $50,” Miller said. “We’re now dreaming beyond the stuff we dreamt of before.”
Miller is considering equipping a drone to act as a temporary radio relay tower in rural areas or where regular towers have been destroyed.
“That’s huge when you think of Oklahoma,” he said. “Where a tornado knocks down all of the equipment, I can have an antenna in the air within 15 minutes.”
Privacy concerns have been raised and addressed, he said. He has spoken to police groups around the country and determined that secrecy, or the perception of it, can ground a program.
“We’ve been open and transparent about it from the beginning,” Miller said. “The resistance is gone, but every now and then, we get a new community member come in and ask about it with the sheriff. They come in with the expectation that we’re hiding a Predator drone that we got from the military that’s armed with missiles hiding in a hangar. But we’re so far away from that, it’s just crazy.”
Dotson said he is open to a public discussion here.
“We need to ask ourselves, ‘Does the solution make sense?’” he said. “And if it does, we should use it and not fall to political pressure.
“We all know technology helps makes life better, and I don’t think I would be doing my job if I wasn’t pushing this conversation.”


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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