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Here Come the Drone Wars in America -- The Public vs. Overzealous Police

Using drones for surveillance in the US won't make overzealous police behaviour or lack of accountability disappear.

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The heavily redacted documents on the FBI's drone programmes, released by the FAA a day after Mueller's disclosure, give a glimpse into just how (un)transparent any law enforcement agency's drone programme will likely be and should reaffirm public skepticism.

Aside from learning that the FBI has operated UAV's since 2010,  according to the Washington Post "the documents provide virtually no details" on the FBI's use of drones in US airspace, invoking "the need to keep law enforcement operations confidential".

"We have tried to monitor police conduct and we've been stymied at every point," Pritchett said. Pritchett has requested public records on the demographic statistics of individuals tracked, photographed and surveilled by the BPD in order to quantify racial profiling, and was told by the department they "didn't keep that information".

The limits of legislation

Last February, the  Electronic Frontier Foundation revealed that 81 county and city law enforcement agencies had quietly applied for certificates of authorisation from the Federal Aviation Administration so that they could operate unmanned aerial vehicles in their localities. Police and sheriffs had simply sought acquisition of drones without consulting their communities or proposing any sort of policy framework that would govern the use of such vehicles.

In response, most states and some municipalities  drew up legislation to regulate local law enforcement agencies' uses of drones. Many of those bills - introduced in all but seven states - adopted the language from model legislation and recommendations put forward by civil libertarian organisations such as the ACLU and the Tenth Amendment Center.

However, Kayyali pointed out that in some cases the states' proposed regulations had so many loopholes they appeared to be aimed at mollifying the public rather than effectively protecting its civil liberties.

Furthermore, according to Kayyali, largely absent in many of these pending bills is a crucial component, the right to sue law enforcement agencies for damages, that would enable civilians to hold the agencies accountable to any regulations. Of the six state bills that have been signed into law thus far, only Florida's and Texas' include such a right to civil litigation.

Norm Stamper, the former Chief of Police in Seattle, Washington, is now an outspoken critic of police conduct in America. In an interview with me he noted that the 18,000 jurisdictions in the country and police and sheriff's departments operate with varying protocols and relationships to their communities.

"There should be a routinised path of accountability so that the police and community are involved in drafting and articulating policies and procedures together," Stamper said. "It's critical that there be a full, authentic partnership between police and civil libertarians."

But as of now, that kind of cooperation doesn't exist: "Police operate unilaterally, and that is unacceptable and frightening," Stamper said. "I don't have confidence that American law enforcement is ready for that seamless partnership between themselves and the community."

Civil liberties lawyers have  maintained that with stringent regulations, it's possible for law enforcement to adopt drone technology the "right" way. While it's clear the establishment of such regulations is crucial, it is only the first step and one that won't make law enforcement's thuggish behaviour or lack of accountability magically disappear. Civilians will continue to have to do battle to enforce regulations. That battle is already an uphill one and with drones to worry about, it will just get steeper.

Just ask a veteran of this struggle, Andrea Pritchett.


Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in San Francisco and the West Bank. She is a graduate of Stanford University. 

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