WE live in an increasingly dangerous world. The bombing event in Boston was another testament to the fact that we are not entirely safe here in the United States. There are people and organizations who wish to do us harm — from foreign lands and within our nation with a skewed view of the world and how to express their views.
Supporting the use of technology to prevent and investigate criminal and terrorist activities would make our communities safer.
Many people have voiced opposition to cameras on the Seattle waterfront and to the fielding of very small, unarmed drones by the Seattle Police Department for visual observation. People who complained believe these tools represent Big Brother intruding into their private lives.
Legislation was recently proposed in the Washington state House of Representatives to severely limit the deployment of drone aircraft for surveillance purposes, but the bill did not pass out of the House. The proposed rules would have constrained aircraft use to the same standards that law enforcement must follow in order to get a wiretap order from a judge.
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The restrictions also required extensive reporting by state and local law enforcement on the uses of drones and the data collected from their use.
After receiving complaints from citizens and special-interest groups, Mayor Mike McGinn directed the Seattle Police Department to return any drones that had been purchased with Homeland Security grant funding, leaving them with one less tool to protect the public.
Now the Seattle City Council is stepping in with its own prescriptions on the use of drones and other fixed surveillance systems. Council members are proposing that policies and procedures be put in place and approved by the council before a purchase and deployment of these types of systems.
Cameras, whether mounted on a pole or on a mobile platform like a drone, are intended to help prevent crimes against people and property. Ideally, these cameras could assist in foiling simple crime or a terrorist attack.
Cameras are especially vital to the forensic investigation of events where something did happen. They can be critical in identifying suspects and actual persons of interest based on an analysis of video footage.
In Boston there was a very deliberate search for any possible video footage from store-surveillance cameras and other public video. The cameras that recorded the bombers activities were instrumental in identifying the suspects, which led to killing of one and arrest of another.
To take away these devices from the arsenal of nonlethal measures police can use is shortsighted. At a time when citizens are demanding that government become more cost efficient and more effective it is counterintuitive to tie their hands behind their backs. These technological tools can accomplish both of these goals.
The city of Seattle does not own and operate a helicopter. Taking away the one aerial-surveillance tool it did have, drones, is unacceptable. A modern, deployable helicopter costs $2.5 million. The staff and maintenance of the aircraft would add additional millions to operational budgets. A small drone can be purchased and operated at a small fraction of the cost of a regular aircraft.
As we move forward into the future, let us resolve to empower our elected officials and police to take every measure to provide for our safety using the technology that is available. Law enforcement is not the enemy. It is time that we trust police to properly use these modern tools.
Watching Bostonians cheer and clap for all the law-enforcement personnel as they drove out of the Watertown neighborhood showed the respect and bond the residents felt for their police forces. Seattle’s men and women in blue are no less dedicated. They deserve our respect and support when and where we can provide it.
Eric Holdeman is director of the Center for Regional Disaster Resilience for the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER).