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Robocop: US cities experiment with autonomous drone policing raise civil liberty questions

Officers say the drones will help limit human contact, a key in the Covid-19 pandemic

Police in the US are preparing to trial the use of drones to respond to emergency calls



Police forces across the US are trialing the use of drones to respond to emergency calls, sending them out to follow suspects on foot and in getaway cars, as well as helping in rescues. Chula Vista police department in Southern California was the first in the country to trial a program called Drone as First Responder, hoping to save millions on the cost of helicopters and pilots. Officers launch the automated drones from the roof of the police department after receiving the 911 call, programming them to follow a particular person or vehicle on its own. They have already been used in drug busts and police chases. Police in Chula Vista, which has a population of 270,000, have flown 4,100 flights since the program began two years ago - sometimes as many as 15 a day. Over the last several months, three other cities — two in California and one in Georgia — have joined the trial. Police squads in New York have used drones for years, but mostly in simple, manually flown ways.


The new model autonomous drones, complete with long-distance cameras and sensors, use the same technology that powers self-driving cars and cost about $35,000 each.

With the pandemic still worsening, drones are a way of policing at a distance, said Rahul Sidhu, an officer in Redondo Beach, near Los Angeles, which started a program similar to the one in Chula Vista just after the virus reached the US.

Skeptics have flagged civil liberty and privacy concerns CREDIT: MIGUEL RIOPA /AFP

“We’re just trying to limit our exposure to other people,” he said. “Sometimes, you can send a drone without sending an officer.” But the use of drones against civilians has raised some concerns among civil rights advocates. For example, some say the drones could easily be used to identify people, which could remove any expectation of privacy once you leave the home. “Communities should ask hard questions about these programs. As the power and scope of this technology expands, so does the need for privacy protection,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Project on Speech, Privacy and Technology told the New York Times. The Chula Vista department treats drone video much as it does video from police body cams, storing footage as evidence and publicly releasing it with approval. Questions have also been raised over the use of drones at Black Lives Matter protests that took place around the country after the police killing of George Floyd. In many cities, including Chula Vista, the deployment of drones at protests is forbidden. In places like New York, lawmakers are working to introduce bills to regulate the police use of such drones. One bill currently being considered effectively bans law enforcement from using drones for recording or collecting data on the general public within open spaces, which includes parks and protests. It would also ban the use of facial recognition.