When police and firefighters are called to help in a crisis, we want them to have the best tools available to do the job at hand.
When Laconia police spent three days last April searching for Hassan Sapry, who was being sought on a murder warrant, he was arrested at his parents’ home on Pleasant Street. As part of that search, a New Hampshire State Police helicopter could be heard circling overhead.
Had police been equipped with an unmanned aerial vehicle — popularly known as a drone — it might have made the search just a little easier.
It should come as no surprise, then, that police in the city are seeking to purchase a couple of drones.
“They have certainly become a really big tool in law enforcement for a number of different missions,” Laconia Police Chief Matt Canfield said.
The remote-controlled mini-helicopters — which can fit in the trunk of most cars — offer several advantages to police.
The first and most important is officer safety. Using a drone-mounted camera rather than an officer to surveil a potentially dangerous area keeps officers out of harm’s way while providing visual intelligence that police can use to assess the situation at hand. For instance, a drone might have been useful during last summer’s six-hour standoff at a condominium on Weirs Boulevard, or at one of several other stalemates police have been confronted with in years past.
Drones also can go where police and helicopters cannot, and can surveil a lot of ground in a fraction of the time it would take moving officers on foot. That ability might prove invaluable in a search-and-rescue scenario involving water or woods. “If a child goes missing, time is critical, and this would allow us to check a large area,” Canfield said.
The chief is right, and we believe acquiring the drones is a good idea — though, as with any surveillance tool, the proliferation of drones brings understandable privacy concerns.
The American Civil Liberties Union has crafted some reasonable recommendations to prevent drones from being used to infringe on people’s privacy.
For instance, the ACLU suggests that policies about how and when to use drones be decided by the public’s representatives, rather than by police departments, and the policies should be clear, written, and open to the public. Transparency can go a long way toward soothing whatever worries people may have about drones and privacy.
Except in emergency situations, the ACLU recommends that drones be used by law enforcement only after obtaining a warrant, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe a drone will collect evidence about a specific criminal act. In other words, no fishing expeditions.
The ACLU also recommends that images captured by drones should be stored only when there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.
By being transparent about the use of drones and exercising civilian oversight, it is possible to strike a balance between the needs of police to have the best possible tools available and the right of people to be free from unnecessary surveillance.