Police May Get Deadly Drones: Should We Worry?
Picture the iconic O.J. Simpson police chase along a California freeway in 1994—except with a swarm of police drones firing small missiles at the fleeing Ford Bronco. Today, such a deadly drone is not that far-fetched.
Connecticut lawmakers are mulling a bill that would let police deploy drones with deadly weapons, the Associated Press reports. If it passes, cops in the Nutmeg state could one day use drones to release tear gas, bullets or even bombs.
Civil rights groups, unsurprisingly, are opposed to a law that would let police use lethal force from the sky. Indeed, the prospect of police pursuing people with missile-equipped drones may seem more appropriate for overseas warfare than domestic law enforcement.
But the issue may not be that simple. As I note in the Tech Debate video above with Fortune’s Andrew Nusca, any use of deadly drones is likely to occur in exceptional circumstances—snipers in towers or hostage situations—rather than day-to-day policing. It could also save the lives of law enforcement by letting them take out heavily-armed individuals from a safe distance.
Meanwhile, like when police used a robot to kill a Dallas cop-killer last summer, it may be the novelty of the act rather than the force itself that people find unsettling. After all, if police are confronted with an armed and dangerous individual, does it really make a difference if they use a drone—rather than a sniper rifle or a squad car or an eagle—to neutralize a threat?
The flip side, though, is new drone weapons could exacerbate an already-high number of police shootings, or tempt certain officers to deploy them irresponsibly. Meanwhile, the introduction of armed drones could accelerate the phenomenon, decried by academics like Radley Balko, of “warrior cops,” in which police adopt military measures on American streets in place of civil law enforcement.
Fortunately, it may not be necessary to resolve the debate right away. In the case of the Connecticut bill, it appears to be part of a larger attempt, underway in many states, to outlaw drone dangers. If it passes, the police measure is just a narrowly tailored exception aimed at hypothetical future situations.
In Woodbury, one of the three Connecticut towns that have a drone, Officer Frans Dielemans says the issue of putting weapons in the air hasn’t been considered. Dielemans told Fortune that the town currently has only one drone, and that its current focus is on getting pilot certification to allow officers to fly it in the first place.