Drone Policing in a Pandemic Raises Civil Liberties Concerns

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The coronavirus pandemic has prompted police departments to rely increasingly on drone aircraft to enforce social-distancing rules while keeping police officers at a safe distance as well, USA Today reports. Over the past month, several law enforcement agencies have unveiled drones that broadcast announcements at parks, beaches and homeless camps to enforce stay-at-home orders and social-distancing guidelines.

“We started thinking about ways of how we can limit the ability to transmit (COVID-19),” said Messod Bendayan, spokesman for the Daytona, Fla., Police Department. “Instead of risking an officer, we just fly the drone and have the drone speak a message. It keeps officers safe and keeps people safe.” But civil rights groups have pushed back against the use of such technology, saying some of its capabilities are invasive and pose constitutional dangers. These include the ability to detect someone’s body temperature from a distance. “People have a right to privacy,” said Caleb Kruckenberg, litigation counsel for the New Civil Liberties Alliance. “You can’t just take their temperature without any reason. I think this is just an example of something that police departments have a tendency to do. Someone sells them on a new technology and they can come up with what they think is reason to use it and they use it, but they don’t necessarily think about how invasive it might be.” Don Roby, third chairperson of the International Association of Police Chief’s aviation committee, said police departments should be transparent, especially when they’re using technology that’s not available to the general public. “It’s up to the chiefs, the sheriffs, the police commissioners to define what missions they’re going to use the drones for. … They should be seeking some input from the community,” Roby said.

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