Albany Criminal Defense Attorney on New Police Drones in Capital District
When the Albany Police announced recently that they were planning to purchase two drones, they became the first urban police department in the immediate Capital Region to acquire the technology. At the same time, they joined plenty of other law-enforcement agencies across the state, and the country, in adding drones to their investigative arsenal. The New York State Police, Albany County Sheriff’s Department, and the New York City Police Department all have come on board with the technology, and a recent survey by Bard College estimated that the number of police and fire departments across the country that have drones is close to 1,000.
The Advancement of Drone Technology in Law Enforcement
Law-enforcement officials increasingly view drones as an inexpensive, safe, and flexible technology for searches and surveillance, noting that the small unmanned craft, mounted with powerful state-of-the-art cameras, can go places that are hard to reach even with helicopters. They potentially have multiple uses, from surveying storm and accident damage, to aiding rescue efforts, to tracking fugitives and criminal suspects. “It’s a really critical progression of technology in law enforcement,” said Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins when the pending purchases were announced.
But drone technology in law enforcement also raises concerns about invasion of privacy, illegal or unreasonable surveillance, and improper data collection. Applauding recent progress by Congress and the Supreme Court in strengthening protections against technology-driven surveillance, Jake Laperruque and David Janovsky of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) warned that drones “threaten to undermine the progress made in recent years to prevent unreasonable location tracking and government stockpiling of sensitive, personal information. With existing and emerging technologies, government may be able to use aerial surveillance to track our movements en masse and catalog participation in constitutionally protected activities such as protests, religious ceremonies, and political rallies.”
Local Concerns Over Police Drone Usage in Capital Region
Locally, Melanie Trimble, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Region chapter, urged transparency from the Albany Police Department on how and for what purposes the drones would be deployed. “We need to be really clear on what the drones are going to be used for,” she told the Times Union. “It’s a really big concern; drones are a very powerful law enforcement tool.”
Trimble echoed other civil-rights and privacy advocates in stating that warrants should be required before the police use the drones for searches, just as they would need a warrant to physically enter and search someone’s home. Another issue raised by Trimble and others is the unnecessary storing of footage; it should be deleted in a timely manner, she said, if doesn’t contain any evidence of a crime or other information useful in a criminal investigation.
POGO’s Laperruque and Janovsky also warned that drones are capable of secretly spying on people and events from thousands of feet, or even miles, away; and that they can identify people with license plate readers and facial recognition technology. Put those two features together, they said, and police have more capability than ever before to catalog attendees at union meetings, protests, and political rallies.
Drones also can follow and track individuals’ and vehicles’ movements from a safe, unseen distance, and have the flexibility to avoid obstructed views and get their cameras into the best possible spying positions.
A $100,000 grant from the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services more than covered the cost of the APD’s new drones and cameras, said Chief Eric Hawkins.
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