It’s only reasonable that police, who remain on the front lines even in the mist of a pandemic, would want a safe way to monitor the public without having to risk their own health. That’s why some police departments have turned to the use of drones during the coronavirus pandemic in order to monitor social distancing and other situations. But defense lawyers, as well as privacy and civil rights advocates are concerned that once police start using drones, they will continue to do so long after the Covid-19 threat has dissipated.
Which Police Departments Are Using Drones?
At least 8 law enforcement agencies in San Diego County already use drones, including the Escondido Police Department, Carlsbad Police Department, San Diego Sheriff’s Department, Oceanside Police Department, San Diego Police Department, Chula Vista Police Department, National City Police Department and San Diego Harbor Police Department. Recently the El Cajon Police Department also applied for a $45,000 drone with grant money they received after the outbreak began.
Drone Use Related to Covid-19
In the last few weeks, the Chula Vista police department announced its intention to start using drones to monitor people during the pandemic so they can avoid coming in close contact with the public. They want to attach microphones to the devices and use them to give warnings to people who are not wearing masks or who are failing to keep 6 feet away from others. It’s a noble idea, but one that may just as easily be achieved with police officers equipped with megaphones and many people who are weary of government surveillance worry that if police start using drones to keep an eye on things during the coronavirus outbreak, they won’t stop using them in such a manner when the disease is no longer a threat.
Why Were Police Using Drones Before the Coronavirus?
In San Diego, this question is quite problematic as the Voice of San Diego contacted six police departments in January to find out what police agencies were using their drones for. Only two of the agencies complied with the requests by providing logs about their drone use. Of all agencies, the Carlsbad PD was the most transparent with their use of the surveillance tools.
Overall, the paper discovered that police agencies were using drones for things such as monitoring protests, search and rescue missions and to follow fleeing suspects. These things are important to know because while most people would support the use of a drone for rescue missions or even direct pursuit of a suspect, the idea of using drones to monitor protests seems like a slippery slope. Imagine the effect it could have on free speech if the police add facial recognition to the devices and are able to identify everyone who attended a protest -particularly one against police abuses.
San Diego Lack of Citizen Oversight on Police Surveillance
The concern about police surveillance is isn’t just a crazy conspiracy theory either. Because San Diego County has no Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) program, there was practically no oversight when San Diego Police Department started using the city’s smart streetlights to investigate crimes.
When the county is already being monitored by drones and streetlight cameras, is it really such a stretch to imagine the police to start using other technology incorporated into these devices to monitor people further? Imagine if the police used facial recognition software to know who travels where, tools to read cell phone screens of anyone walking while looking at their phone, or heat guns to tell who is in their homes and when.
It would be particularly worrisome if police start using drones to conduct searches of private property. Fourth Amendment and privacy rights would be implicated by searches where an individual expects a zone of privacy. You don’t need to be paranoid to be concerned by these invasions of privacy.
This is why Peter Liss stands among those who question the necessity of arming police with drones during the coronavirus outbreak. Yes, it could help keep officers safe while enforcing the law, but there are other ways to do this without risking the privacy of the public at large. If you have any questions about this issue or are suspected of any crime, please call (760) 643-4050.
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