Cops Using Drones? Get Ready

An unmanned eye in the sky may be coming soon to your neighborhood.

A quadrocopter drone in Berlin (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
A quadrocopter drone in Berlin (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Within a decade, thousands of aerial drones could be hovering over neighborhoods across America, surveying traffic or crops, monitoring large crowds, searching for missing children and fugitives and perhaps more.

Could the “eye in the sky” deliver major advancements for public safety and a wide variety of industries, or lead to violations of privacy, abuse and overzealous policing, particularly in African-American communities?

Concerns about the potential misuse of pilotless aircraft, particularly by law enforcement, are driving debates in state legislatures and Congress as federal authorities aggressively expand the civilian market for the machines.

The Federal Aviation Administration has accelerated the licensing of unmanned aircraft based on a mandate from Congress to open U.S. airspace to commercial drone traffic by 2015. The FAA estimates that 10,000 drones could be licensed by 2020.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in March endorsed drones as equivalent to security cameras, saying, “What’s the difference whether the drone is up in the air or on the building?” As an indication of his mindset, Bloomberg has also defended his police department’s practice of stop and frisk, which has disproportionately ensnared black and Latino males and been criticized as a civil rights violation.

Fairly or not, public perception of drones has been influenced by the U.S. military’s use of them to hunt and kill suspected terrorists in the Middle East. The drones launching in America are unarmed. But that’s been no comfort to local officials and lawmakers in many states.

In Seattle, strong community opposition prompted the mayor to end a nascent police-drone program, which would have used aircraft to give an overhead view of large crime scenes, accidents, disasters and search-and-rescue operations.

Legislation was introduced in 39 states this year to regulate drones, mostly by protecting citizens from aerial spying, or unfettered surveillance by the aircraft. Virginia in February became the first state to pass a drone law. A two-year moratorium on law-enforcement use was imposed while lawmakers craft legal protections for broad drone use. Idaho followed with a law prohibiting police from using drones in criminal investigations without a warrant.

The defense of privacy rights has been the rare issue that finds conservatives and liberals on the same side. Many of the state bills are the result of alliances between the American Civil Liberties Union and Republican lawmakers.