Is Homeland Security creating a national, drone-based police force? 

Drone Home

Every neighborhood has a walking guy. He's the one who always seems to be out there exercising in every kind of weather. He's an institution, as much a part of the neighborhood as the pool or the park. My husband is our neighborhood's walking guy.

After a rash of car break-ins, the police stopped him while he was out on a walk one day and demanded to see his ID. They questioned him relentlessly, the way they would a common criminal, simply because he happened to be on foot. All this went down while neighbors drove by in their cars, no doubt wondering what he'd done. The police filled out what they called a "permanent card" on him that they said they'd keep on file indefinitely.

He was furious. When he got home, he contacted the police department to complain, calling up the chain of command until he came to an understanding with a commander.

Imagine, instead, that my husband had been tracked by a drone scouring the neighborhood for suspicious activity. Suppose it had followed him home and cased our house? Can you imagine how frustrating that would be, how intimidating? That is, if you even detected that it was spying on you, watching your behavior to see if you fit whatever profile it was searching for. Maybe you'd never even know.

Sadly, that whole scenario isn't too far-fetched.

A few weeks ago, Sen. Rand Paul demanded to know whether the president believed he had a right to kill an American citizen on American soil with a drone, but an equally important question is whether the president intends to launch a federal, drone-based "public safety" force to police the interior of the country. And somebody should ask him about this soon.

Last year, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it was expanding its activities beyond terrorism to something it calls "public safety." The department is now experimenting with using drones in "first responder" and "law enforcement" types of "scenarios," Wired.com reports. Homeland Security plans to use its drones and their attached cameras to watch and police sporting events, political events, and large public gatherings. Meanwhile Atlantic Media's Nextgov.com reported that the department's drones could also be used "to support emergency and non-emergency incidents nationwide."

For some people, this might sound all well and good, but the problem is that many of the above functions used to be handled by local law enforcement without any involvement from the federal government. Worse yet, both Democrats and Republicans in Washington are now discussing a plan to give Homeland Security and the Justice Department authority over all the drones flown in America's skies, including those owned and operated by local police departments. That move would consolidate surveillance and law enforcement powers under one powerful federal police jurisdiction. Put all this together and it looks an awful lot like the backbone for a national, bureaucrat-run, drone-based police force.

In America, community policing has always been done at the local level. If a police force engaged in corruption or got out of hand, local voters could vote out the mayor or council that controlled it. This has always kept police departments firmly under the control of local communities. But drone technology is rapidly tipping that equation, allowing Washington's multitude of law enforcement agencies to encroach on local law enforcement duties. On Washington's present track, a decade from now it could be hard to tell where our local police departments end and the federal government begins.

So far, South Carolina is way behind the ball on this. A bill in the state legislature that hasn't gotten a lot of attention would require local police departments that fly drones to get a warrant if they want to use it to gather evidence in a case. The bill doesn't even mention the federal government.

As it stands, there are a lot of questions to be asked. Do we want federal help with local policing? How far should federal spying with drones be allowed to go in South Carolina? Should the federal government be required to consult with our governor or other officials? How much will the public be told about what federal drones are doing in our skies and what role they play in local investigations? And what should police departments be required to tell us about the activities and information they are sharing with federal bureaucrats that don't answer to us? I don't know about you, but I hope we get those answers sooner rather than later.

Tara Servatius hosts the morning show on Charleston's 1250 AM WTMA. E-mail her at tara@wtma.com. Follow Servatius on Facebook at facebook.com/TaraServatiusOnline and on Twitter at @TaraServatius.


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