Seattle residents remain skeptical about police drones

SEATTLE -- The Seattle Police Department believes using drones will help cut down on crime, but the idea isn't sitting well with everyone in the community.

Department officials met with the public on Wednesday to discuss the issue. Opponents of the plan are concerned about privacy, and one group went as far as calling the drones a "gateway drug for big-time surveillance."

The police department already has the drones, and now city leaders like Councilman Bruce Harrell want to lay down the law about how officers can use them.

"It poses some problems," Harrell said. "No city has ever really talked about when they should be used and how you restrict them, and so this legislation would address all those issues head on."

The department plans on using the Dragonflyer drone as an eye in the sky. The machine's thermal imaging technology would help during hostage situations, search and rescue operations, bomb threats and when officers need to pursue an armed criminal, police say.

Department officials made it clear the drones would not be used to conduct general surveillance, but many people at Wednesday's meeting were not sold.

"You guys are idiots," one attendee said. "You're telling us, 'Oh they got'em already, we have to use them.' Bull!"

The ACLU has also raised questions about how the drones will be used and how citizens will be protected from prying eyes.

"They have unprecedented ability for law enforcement to track our movement and who we associate with, where we go, what we're doing," said the ACLU's Doug Honig.

The rules proposed by Harrell would not allow the drones to be used for spying on anyone but suspected criminals, and only after a search warrant has been issued. Unlike military drones, the police drones would not be equipped with weapons.

Chris Stearns of the Seattle Human Rights Commission has reservations about the drones.

"There's a lot of potential for misuse, and we want to make sure that does not happen," Stearns said.

Harrell said there should be no rush to push the policy through.

"I would err on the side of caution," he said. "Holding it for two weeks, make sure we have a good piece of legislation that's addressed all the concerns."

Harrell said he wants as much community input as possible before a decision is made.
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