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The next wave of American
surveillance is cops & drones
Seattle Police roll out theirs this week

October 25, 2012

A typical police agency drone. CLICK TO ENLARGE

May 8, 1942, Hayward, California. Members of the Mochida family, an American family, await evacuation by bus to a government internment camp. Had drones been available then would it have been easier to round them up? Dorothea Lange photo.
Chronicle Staff

(SEATTLE, WA) -- There was a time in America, arguably a few decades back, when one might have seen ten thousand angry people marching in the streets and the local police chief looking for a new job by the end of the month -- following an announcement the local cop shop was planning to buy and deploy remote controlled spy planes in the air over local communities for “crime fighting” purposes.

Perhaps that was a time in the U.S. when people took their concept of civil liberties, individual freedoms, privacy and the prospect of the local police force acting out as a quasi-occupying military force - ala sweeps for insurgents in Afghanistan – a bit more seriously than they do today.

But not only is there no marching in the streets these days, in this new dawn day of American life local police departments proudly roll out their new drones and take them into communities – before they are deployed - for people to see, feel, touch and smell as if they were exciting new video game toys come to life.

The public relations strategy appears to be to softly and slowly roll out the devices in a sort of traveling PR campaign to get the locals comfortable with the small spy plane technology – technology that brings with it potentially far reaching consequences for their civil rights.

To wit the latest local PR drone rollout: the Seattle Police Department is planning a public “presentation” from 6pm to 8pm Thursday at the Garfield Community Center at 2323 E. Cherry St., of a new drone aircraft the department hopes to deploy.

Curiously the drone won’t be flown. It will sit there on display for people to look at while police officials answer questions about the department's unmanned aerial vehicles.

This is the same police department that last year the U.S. Justice Department found - after an 11-month probe - had engaged in “a pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law.”

And that was with no drones in the air.

“Our investigation has revealed that inadequate systems of supervision and oversight have permitted systemic use of force violations to persist at the Seattle Police Department,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.

“The problems within SPD have been present for many years and will take time to fix,” he added.

Specifically the probe found:

· When SPD officers use force, they do so in an unconstitutional manner nearly 20 percent of the time;

· SPD officers too quickly resort to the use of impact weapons, such as batons and flashlights. When SPD officers use batons, 57 percent of the time it is either unnecessary or excessive;

· SPD officers escalate situations, and use unnecessary or excessive force, when arresting individuals for minor offenses. This trend is pronounced in encounters with persons with mental illnesses or those under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This is problematic because SPD estimates that 70 percent of use of force encounters involve these populations.

The Justice Department also found that a number of long-standing and entrenched deficiencies have caused or contributed to these patterns or practices of unlawful or troubling conduct, including the following:

· Deficiencies in oversight, policies and training with regard to when and how to (1) use force, (2) report uses of force and (3) use many impact weapons (such as batons and flashlights);

· Failure of supervisors to provide oversight of the use of force by individual officers, including appropriate investigation and review of uses of force (notably, among the approximately 1,230 use of force reports from January 2009 to April 2011, only five were referred for “further review” at any level within SPD);

· Ineffective systems of complaint investigation and adjudication;

· An ineffective early intervention system and disciplinary system;

· Inadequate policies and training with regard to pedestrian stops and biased policing; and

· A failure to collect adequate data to assess biased policing allegations.


A draft of the Seattle Police Department’s proposed policies on the use of drones was released yesterday on the department’s blog "SPD Blotter" which can be found here

According to a report in The Seattle Times, “The department's intended use of drones came to light earlier this year when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave approval for Seattle police to use unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones…SPD was among only a handful of law-enforcement agencies to win FAA approval to use drones, with the majority going to academic, military and government organizations.”

The department has a vision of using the drones in things like search-and-rescue operations, investigating crime scenes, natural disasters and traffic collisions among potentially other things.

What does the American public think of all this?

More than a third of Americans worry their privacy will suffer if drones like those used to spy on our enemies overseas become a police tool for tracking bad guys in local American communities, according to an Associated Press-National Constitution Center poll released last month.

A CBS news report noted that, “Congress has directed the Federal Aviation Administration to come up with safety regulations that will clear the way for routine domestic use of unmanned aircraft within the next three years. The government is under pressure from a wide range of interests to open U.S. skies to drones.”

And manufacturers want to cash in on what they see is a huge demand for the small spy ships.

“Government and commercial drone-related expenditures are forecast to total $89 billion worldwide over the next decade. On the leading edge of that new market are state and local police departments, who say that in many cases drones are cheaper, more practical and more effective than manned aircraft,” said the CBS report.


But civil liberties groups warn this is a slippery slope citizens would allow local police departments to jump on, and one fraught with potential for serious abuse of citizen’s rights.

A report this month in the Huffington Post said, “Civil liberties groups note that strong "safeguards and accountability mechanisms" must be in place to ensure that "law enforcement does not use drones to engage in warrantless mass surveillance," according to an ACLU blogpost.

And drones are cheap to buy -- a single drone costs between $50,000 to $100,000, whereas a helicopter costs $3 million and is very expensive to operate and insure.

And the ACLU sees the cheapness of the drones as a potential danger unto itself.

"When the police have to mount elaborate and costly foot and squad patrols to follow a suspect 24/7, the expenditure of resources serves as a deterrent to abuse; it forces the police to limit their surveillance to instances when it is actually necessary," the blog post says. "Drones permit the police to surveil people at all hours of the day and, apparently, at 1/30 the cost of other forms of aerial surveillance. The natural deterrent to abuse goes away, and invites abuse."

The Post piece also points out that drones “vest vast new powers that police helicopters and existing weapons do not vest: and that’s true not just for weaponization but for surveillance. Drones enable a Surveillance State unlike anything we’ve seen. Because small drones are so much cheaper than police helicopters, many more of them can be deployed at once, ensuring far greater surveillance over a much larger area. Their small size and stealth capability means they can hover without any detection, and they can remain in the air for far longer than police helicopters.”

And there is one more thing.

The smooth, carefree, almost giddy acceptance of police drones in the air by the citizenry – albeit with what they believe are all the “proper” guidelines in place to protect them from the present or future abuse of such technology – makes one very large assumption.

That assumption is that marshal law will never be declared in America, that a dictatorship will never come to power or that a presidential executive order will never someday be issued that, for all practical purposes, has the force of marshal law to the extent that civil liberties and the normal protections of the rights of Americans are put on hold; an order that would transform local police departments overnight into an enforcement arm of the federal government.

Most young Americans feel this is such a remote possibility that it is not worth being concerned about.

But there are millions of Japanese Americans who know better.

They still remember World War Two - and Executive Order 9066, signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt February 19, 1942 - after which they were rounded up like criminals, robbed of their homes, businesses and belongings and – with nothing more than what they could stash quickly in suitcases – being carted off under armed guard to various American “internment camps,” around the country.

None of these Americans had broken the law, been charged with a crime or had been convicted of a crime by a jury of their peers.

To find out more about how easy it is for your rights to be waived, for due process of law to evaporate and for you and your family to end up in a prison camp in Idaho, check here


“The truth is - as this deplorable experience proves - that constitutions and laws are not sufficient of themselves…Despite the unequivocal language of the Constitution of the United States that the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, and despite the Fifth Amendment's command that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, both these constitutional safeguards were denied by military action under Executive Order 9066….”
Book description from back cover of the book, “Executive Order 9066 The Internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans,” by Maisie & Richard Conrat 1992, 120 pages, paperback.



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