As police agencies across the country are using Homeland Security money to purchase drones for the use against civilians, one Virginia city has bucked the trend and put a two-year moratorium on the use of unmanned aircraft. Charlottesville is the first city in the nation to swear off the usually-military aircraft and they are hoping others will follow suit.
Law enforcement are purchasing these drones, used in military zones to drop weapons and gain intelligence, in mass quantities. How they are being used is still in question. While no one would outright admit it, there are indications the robotic eye-in-the-sky was used in the California manhunt for rogue cop Christopher Dorner.
There are several problems with the domestic use of these high-tech spying devices. And they all center on how the devices will be used. If they are used to gather intelligence, i.e. to spy on citizens, what safeguards will be put in place to protect the civil liberties of those below? And if they are used to spread tear gas…?
Drones aren’t allowed to be used domestically without approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). But it seems the FAA is freely doling out these permissions to police agencies.
The drones aren’t menacing, if you don’t know what you’re looking at. They look like large toys at about 50 pounds or less. But outfitted with tasers, tear gas, or sound cannons, they become a far more dangerous toy for police.
The Charlottesville city council passed the moratorium in a 3-2 vote last week. It was drafted by the Rutherford Institute, a local civil liberties group. The group says they are working on statewide drone restrictions as well and are gaining support from state lawmakers.
Charlottesville isn’t a big city, with a population of about 43,500. The city is home to the University of Virginia and is 120 miles southwest of D.C.
One can only hope other cities, states, and even federal lawmakers take note of Charlottesville’s moratorium. While the FAA is pushing to have more robotic aircraft in U.S. airspace by 2015, such devices shouldn’t be pushed any further without the support of the public and severe restrictions on their usage.
Police will use the tools at their disposal, sometimes even when their use isn’t warranted. And given Virginia’s interest in generating income for traffic tickets, and trumped up speeding tickets, you have to wonder if they will be able to resist. If cheap drones were available to patrol Virginia skies and interstate highways, and automatically issue reckless driving citations, do you think the legislature would support it?
But this is a positive development, at least for now.