Should the Houston Police Department use unmanned surveillance aircraft for traffic enforcement and covert operations?Of those, 72 percent opposed use of unmanned spy planes in urban Houston, while 28% favored the idea.
A couple of the readers who favored the idea left comments in this post saying the use of unmanned spy drones is no different from current police use of helicopters, but I don't think that's entirely accurate. For starters, it begs the argument, if it's the "same" as a helicopter, and HPD has helicopters, why buy this new gadget?
The most important service of a helicopter is transporting people, getting to the scene of an emergency despite traffic at any time of day, but this plane won't do that. As for aerial surveillance, the noisy helicopter gives automatic notice when it's around, while the spy plane is designed for covert viewing. Indeed, the amount of visual intrusion from humans in a helicopter is advanced by a magnitude of scale with an unmanned spy drone, which will have long-range cameras in all directions, constantly recording for future analysis.
From a constitutional perspective, this bizarrely would not violate any Fourth Amendment rights under current Supreme Court standards, for reasons I've criticized at length in the past. It's the same legal standard that has occasionally protected shopping mall voyeurs taking upskirt photos on escalators. Basically the law says it's not an invasion of privacy to take your picture if someone is in a place they have the legal right to be and takes a line of sight shot, even if they use intense magnification from a distance. While this protects paparazzi who want to shoot pics of naked movie stars suntanning in their backyards, the precedents establishing this standard have for the most part been set in law enforcement cases.
So if they're "just looking" (after all, as Houston PD Chief Harold Hurtt says, if you're not doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?), police can fly their toy camera plane around town and peek into backyards all day, under this theory, without violating our rights as currently formulated by SCOTUS.
One commenter envisioned a use that would violate current Supreme Court standards, "If they put IR [infrared] on it and start randomly looking for hot spots where people are growing pot it might" violate Fourth Amendment rights. That's exactly correct, at least under under current Supreme Court rulings, if you agree with the Court's limited interpretation of the Fourth Amendment.
Myself, I believe that radical technological innovations (like quiet spy planes with 360-degree cameras rigged with powerful telephoto lenses) require a reworking of these old standards of privacy which have rapidly become inadequate to handle invasive technology. I don't know exactly where that line should be drawn, but I know when this type of invasive technology is legal for use by domestic police, a new line needs to be drawn.
Others questioned whether it's appropriate for police departments to purchase military equipment for use against their own citizens. That already happens, of course, with SWAT and other specialized units, and even to some extent with average cops. Today's officers are often so larded down with equipment on their utility belts they can hardly run. (At the Austin PD, IMO, this trend has reached a point of absurdity.) But using military spy equipment against your own people takes that concept to a new level, and makes us wonder how far police departments will go mimicking police tactics more commonly used in Iraq and Afghanistan against our military enemies.
Someone else said simply, "it's not how I want my tax dollars spent," and given the decrepit state of the Fourth Amendment, I think that's the bottom line. Houston PD can't put enough officers on the street, but they're going to spend millions on expensive toys and gadgets. That spy plane won't make one more arrest, won't write one more traffic ticket, and it won't quell a single domestic disturbance. All it will do is take pictures of from the sky, for as long as HPD is willing to pay the gasoline bill. I think most people in Houston would prefer they pay a few more officer salaries with that money, instead.
This was just a demonstration of the technology, HPD said, they haven't purchased it yet. Let's hope they pass; it would be a big waste of time and money and set a bad precedent.