Colorado Wants Drones to Respond to 911 Calls


The Denver Police Department is planning to deploy aerial drones as 911 first responders, The Denver Post reports.

Like other police units in the US, Denver law enforcement uses a fleet of drones for certain tasks, like mapping crime scenes and trailing suspects on the run. But now, the police force has its sights set on a new use case: responding to emergency calls.

The plan paints a dystopian picture of the future of policing, raising plenty of privacy and resource allotment concerns. Besides, is a tiny drone really the first thing you want to show up at the site of an accident?

But according to the cops, this is the way of the future.

"This really is the future of law enforcement at some point," Sergeant Jeremiah Gates, who heads the drone unit at the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office, told the Post, "whether we like it or not."

Flight Risk

The Denver Police Department, for its part, argues that the drones can help them prioritize emergency calls and make decisions about whether to send an officer to a scene.

"It's saving resources," Gates told the Post. "What if we get a call about someone with a gun, and the drone is able to get overhead and see it's not a gun before law enforcement ever contacts them?"

Immediately, this prospect raises a slew of questions. How does a police force prioritize which calls receive drones before officers? What happens when the police make an error in a situation where a drone was sent to the scene first? And, because the bar is apparently in the basement here: isn't showing up at the scene one of the most fundamental parts of a police officer's job?

There are also serious surveillance concerns. Having camera-equipped police drones buzzing all over a city or even a state isn't a comforting picture, especially as law enforcement units continue to adopt facial recognition software.

"We're worried about what it would mean if drones were really just all over the skies in Colorado," American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado staff attorney Laura Moraff told the Post, adding that existing under surveillance "can change the way people speak and protest."

Moraff also raised the point that there's already a well-documented problem "with people reporting Black people doing normal everyday things," so sending a drone to a scene for every and any 911 call could add a new and pervasive layer of surveillance to what are already overpoliced communities.

"It can really affect behavior on a massive scale," Moraff continued, "if we are just looking up and seeing drones all over the place, knowing that police are watching us."

Next, the Denver Police Department is going to replace 911 operators with buggy customer service bots that make you use your keypad to relay which kind of crime or emergency you're currently experiencing. What could possibly go wrong?

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