The ACLU has a problem with the police using drones

The main thrust of this story is probably nothing unusual. No matter what the police do anywhere around the country, the ACLU can reliably be counted upon to find some reason to object to it. But it’s the location of today’s news item and the specific complaint which add the needed wow factor.

In Boston (of all places) the police department recently invested in a few high tech drones. You can tell they’re fairly advanced since the bill for three of them was more than $17K. At this point they haven’t really even done enough with them to call it a pilot program. For the most part they’re just unboxing them and going for a couple of test flights. But the ACLU caught wind of the story and are already issuing dire warnings about what this could mean for rank and file citizens. (Boston Globe)

The Boston Police Department, without fanfare, expanded its crime-fighting arsenal earlier this year, purchasing several drones that it may use to photograph crime scenes — and raising concerns among privacy advocates.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, after receiving a complaint in July that police officers were seen flying a drone over a Jamaica Plain housing development, learned through a public records request that the department had spent nearly $17,500 on three drones and related equipment over a three-month period beginning in January. The ACLU provided the documents to the Globe.

A Police Department spokesman said that investigators are “considering using this equipment due to its ability to photograph and capture an aerial view of a crime scene” but that there are no immediate plans to do so.

That doesn’t really get to the crux of the complaints coming from the ACLU. Yes, we get that you’re objecting. But… why? Here’s the short version.

The prospect of police using them more routinely, particularly for surveillance, has met sharp resistance. Civil liberties groups say the devices, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, threaten privacy rights, and without proper regulation could be used to target communities without probable cause or judicial oversight.

There’s the key phrase which was inevitable: targeting communities. The translation of that is, of course, flying drones over neighborhoods which suffer from the most crime during the course of an investigation. But if that neighborhood happens to have a significant minority population, then it’s just profiling or whatever, rather than actual law enforcement. (Or so they would have us believe.)

It’s rather ironic to hear these complaints at this point. Thus far the cops are talking about using the drones to do aerial photography of crime scenes, though they have other uses. And keep in mind that this is Boston. Do you know where the cops were using some slightly less complicated drones earlier this year? At the starting line of the Boston Marathon. Did the ACLU think that was a bad idea?

When the cops are in pursuit of a suspect they already use helicopters as part of the chase. (At least in precincts where they can afford choppers and pilots.) They’re not violating anyone’s rights. There’s no difference between that and a drone except that the latter option is cheaper, more maneuverable and presents less of a risk to the public if it happens to crash. Can we stop freaking out over the use of some improving technology by law enforcement when the bad guys are definitely latching on to every new idea that comes along?