When new technology arrives that could help police officers conduct surveillance work, it is understandable that law enforcement agencies are tempted to acquire it and put it to use. But that doesn't mean they always should.
Such is the case with the interest expressed by the Ogden City Police Department in buying unmanned aircraft, or drones, to patrol the skies over the city. Deploying such technology without clear and firm rules for its use raises significant questions regarding the protection of civil liberties. It also raises questions about the city's overall philosophy of how its police department should interact with its citizenry.
It could be argued that Ogden's policing style in recent years has veered toward the militaristic. Civil libertarians have complained about the frequent use of no-knock warrants, and have challenged in court the enforcement of an injunction against certain types of public behavior associated with gang activity. The effort to acquire drone technology only adds to the perception that Ogden police see themselves in a hostile zone requiring an arsenal more martial than one finds in similarly sized municipalities.
In contrast, the Salt Lake City Police Department has embraced what it calls a "community policing" philosophy, which envisions the integration of officers into the fabric of city life. "We function best when we are part of, not apart from, the community," says Chief Chris Burbank in a quotation that is featured on the department's website.
A fleet of police drones or blimps over a community sends a distinct message of separation between law enforcement and the public. Such technology may be ostensibly employed as just a better way to monitor traffic and public gatherings, but putting drones in the air opens the gate to a slippery slope. The technology is capable of much more than general surveillance, and civil libertarians are justified in their wariness toward such plans.
In Ogden, there is already a surfeit of police watchfulness as a result of the city's efforts to enjoin suspected gang members from gathering and plotting crime. The Utah Supreme Court is set to weigh in on a challenge by the ACLU to Ogden's injunction against members of a local street gang from gathering in public places.
While city leaders credit the injunction with leading to a sharp drop in gang-related crime, any law that restricts people from engaging in otherwise constitutionally protected behavior on the basis of a profile of risk should be employed only as an extreme and temporary measure. The problem is, without an expiration date, such policies tend to evolve into standard operating procedure.
Currently, Ogden is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, with a wave of new businesses locating in the city – much of it associated with the outdoor and recreation industries. Newcomers apparently see in Ogden a place of comfort and opportunity — a civic image that city leaders should strongly favor over an image projected by a police agency that believes public safety problems are great enough to justify the use of extraordinary policies and technology.