The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 4, 2013

Should drones be used to enhance public safety?

October 4, 2013

drone

This post originally appeared on Real Clear Policy.

In September, four counties in Colorado were pummeled by catastrophic floods that, to date, have taken eight lives and left hundreds of people living in shelters. According to media reports, more than 1,200 residents in Boulder, Clear Creek, El Paso, and Larimer counties were unaccounted for when flooding began, but in the days that followed, rescuers heroically located many on that list.

I can't help but think about how beneficial it would have been for these first responders to have had Unmanned Aerial Vehicles -- commonly known as domestic drones -- to safely, quickly, and effectively search treacherous waters and terrain for survivors and relay actionable information to rescuers.

There's good reason to believe that having greater real-time, on-the-ground intelligence in the throes of an emergency could save lives and promote public safety. However, when many citizens think about drones in the hands of public-safety officers, they first imagine the ways that this technology could be used to victimize people, not rescue them. More than 40 state legislatures have debated the use of drones in civilian airspace, with most of the resulting legislation aiming to safeguard against overly intrusive surveillance by law enforcement.

So how do we go about using drones to promote greater public safety, while safeguarding citizens against privacy invasion?

Research can help answer a lot of the questions that concern citizens, privacy advocates, policymakers, and public-safety officers. And if these parties get on the same page, sound regulations and oversight processes can be developed and implemented -- and drones can be put to good use.

Half a decade ago, communities were asking similar questions about closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance systems. Like drones, these systems capture footage around the clock in public areas, and without careful oversight they can be abused to invade citizens' privacy.

So between 2007 and 2010, my Urban Institute colleagues and I studied public CCTV surveillance systems in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., and found that, when used responsibly, they make communities safer while saving cities and taxpayers money.

Integral to these CCTV systems' success were carefully crafted and communicated policies and regulations, as well as mechanisms for holding system operators accountable for following them. We also observed that overly restrictive policies prevented public-safety officers from getting the most out of their investment in CCTV systems. In one city, camera viewing policies were so restrictive that very few officers ever used them for anything more than collecting evidence after the fact.

So law enforcement, technology experts, privacy advocates, and other members of the community came together to balance out privacy and security concerns so that their communities could become safer places all around. Key policies resulting from those conversations included ensuring that camera viewsheds don't capture images of private property, training officers on responsible and lawful camera use, safeguarding video footage, and destroying footage promptly when it isn't critical to an investigation or prosecution.

While it is not an apples-to-apples comparison, our knowledge of public-safety officers' use of CCTV systems suggests that it's a good idea to research how drones could be used to better protect and serve communities. With proper regulations and oversight in place, public-safety officers could legitimately use drones to collect evidence from major auto accidents, recreate crime scenes three dimensionally, monitor the delivery of high-risk arrest warrants, and facilitate communications when working in challenging environments.

And when big, unforeseen emergencies confront communities, first responders will be better equipped to protect and rescue residents.

Image from Falcon-UAV.com

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