Boston Police Want Public Input on Drone Program Rules

Before putting the technology to use, law enforcement officials are asking the public to weigh in on the policies that surround it.

by Antonio Planas, Boston Herald / June 20, 2018
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(TNS) — Drone technology may prove to be a big help to police investigating crime scenes or searching for suspects, but Boston police want to hear from the public before any official policy is set.

“We are keenly aware of George Orwell, ‘Big Brother is watching’ — we don’t want to be that kind of brother,” said Boston police Superintendent-in-Chief William G. Gross. “We want the inputs before we write the policies. We want everybody’s opinion on what is intrusive and what is not.”

During a hearing before the Committee of Public Safety and Criminal Justice yesterday, several councilors voiced concerns about striking a balance between allowing police to utilize the latest technology — like drones and smartphones equipped with ShotSpotter — without infringing on civil rights.

“We don’t want to fall down on that slippery slope of infringing people of their civil liberties and their rights,” Councilor Kim Janey said.

Councilors and police committed to a series of public meetings similar to what occurred prior, during and after police launched a body-camera pilot in the city.

Gross said drone technology could be used to take video or still photos of homicide scenes, catch fleeing suspects or find missing people who sometimes wander into the woods.

Gross said Boston police are also looking into adding ShotSpotter technology on smartphones, a technology used by the New York Police Department that alerts officers on their cellphones to where gunshots are fired, making response times quicker.

Boston police began using the sensors — scattered throughout the city — in 2007. The system serves as an “acoustical technology” that precisely locates the area where gunshots have been fired in the community, police said. That information is now transmitted to computers in officers’ patrol vehicles, Gross said.

Gross said he hears concerns about drones often when he talks to people.

“The young folks that I talk to, they just don’t want drones following them around, especially if they look a certain way, dress a certain way or speak a certain way. They do not want to be stereotyped,” he said.

Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, said any new technology can be abused to target certain segments of the population.

“Any use of surveillance that increases the likelihood of racial profiling will erode trust between communities of color and law enforcement,” he said. “Police departments need to focus on community policing and other strategies that will promote cooperation and safety in the hardest-hit communities.”

©2018 the Boston Herald, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.