Local News
7:00 am
Sun April 13, 2014

Should Louisville Police Buy Drones?

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Louisville authorities unveiled on Friday an impressive new security camera system that shows what's happening in parts of the city in real-time, with the ability to zoom and pan. The purpose is to allow police to respond to problems practically as soon as they start.

But some Louisville Metro Council members want to take the efforts even further.

We're talking unmanned aircraft fitted with cameras.

Yes, drones.

Drones would be a "very quick an efficient way to increase the public safety, but also to be able to get to a situation very quickly, have it in real time, have it recorded and monitored and hopefully maybe deter crime and solve crime that’s already happened," said David Yates, a Democrat who represents the council's 25th District in southwestern Jefferson County.

The cost of drones has dropped recently, making them much cheaper for giving authorities eyes in the skies than a helicopter, Yates argued last week during a council public safety committee meeting.

Indeed, drones can be bought for a few hundred dollars.

They also rankle privacy advocates.

There's a big potential for abuse, argues Kate Miller, program director for the ACLU of Kentucky.

Drones can do things planes, helicopters and police on foot simply can't—and Kentucky has no guidelines for how authorities can use the unmanned aircraft, Miller said.

“At this point, we don’t believe that our privacy laws are strong enough to ensure that this new technology can be used responsibly and consistently with our democratic values," Miller said.

Yates directed his comments last week to Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad, who wasn't so into the idea.

Conrad touted the new camera system trained on Waterfront Park, where a string of violent incidents on March 22 began, leading to the city's renewed focus violence. (Here's an idea of what police can see with the new cameras.)

But drones? 

The idea, Conrad said, was "interesting."

Drones from Fort Knox were used in the fall 2012 train derailment in southwestern Jefferson County—so they have a use in emergency situations like that, Conrad said.

But Conrad went on to list possible issues: Drones can see feasibly see things that aren't in the public eye.

“You can fly over an open field and there wouldn’t be an issue," Conrad said, "but if you had a privacy fence around your yard and it wasn’t something that a man on the street could look through it, or driving in the alley you could look through it, then a drone working for law enforcement wouldn’t necessarily have a right to go in and look at that without a warrant.

“It just creates a lot of questions and, quite frankly, I’m not a fan of making that investment until some of those legal questions have been answered through the courts.”

Councilman Kelly Downard said he didn't buy into the distinction between drones and helicopters.

“I just think we don’t want to be the last darn people in the world to do this," said Downard, whose 16th District covers Eastern Jefferson County. "We ought to be the first. If somebody slaps us we ought to quit doing it, but we ought to try. I just think it’s very important.

"I think the money there is not the important issue. It’s just that we said last week that perception is reality, and it is. And we need to change that perception as quickly as possible, if we can.”

The ACLU of Kentucky wants cities to adopt guidelines for how drones would be managed before one ever took flight as part of a police program, Miller said.

The big questions include: When would police need a warrant? What's fair game for being in the public view, and what's off limits? 

Legislation that would have addressed such issues was proposed in the Kentucky General Assembly, but lawmakers didn't give it much consideration, Miller said.

During last week's committee meeting, Yates said he favored restrictions.

Yates based his pro-drone argument on public safety grounds—managing large crowds such Thunder Over Louisville or the Kentucky Derby. A helicopter costs the city $500 per hour to use, he said. 

"I want to make sure Louisville is leading the march, not following it," he said of drone usage.

Conversations like last week's in Louisville are happening throughout the country as potential domestic uses are thought up for drones, which were initially brought to the public eye for their military uses, in part through U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

In this recent story, Stateline outlined the situation in several states as they wrestle with the domestic drone question. Largely, other parts of the U.S. are having trouble coming up with answers.

As of 2012, the Federal Aviation Administration hadn't authorized drone flight requests in Kentucky, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And, meanwhile, we're also seeing businesses consider using drones in the future—namely Amazon, which has a huge presence in Louisville.

Drone technology is advancing and it's likely we'll see drones used for public safety at some point in future.

So it should be no shock that Louisville leaders brought up the idea amid an effort to improve authorities' ability to see what's happening and, by their reckoning, prevent crime.

The question is: Will Louisville be an early adopter?

(Image via Shutterstock)