Cop shootings speed approval for Phoenix police drone deployment [Update]

Phoenix police drones

The shooting of five Arizona police officers by an assailant barricaded in a house have prompted renewed calls from officials in Phoenix to equip law enforcement forces with drones, whose remote surveillance capabilities can inform cops of hidden dangers facing them.

Phoenix City Counsellor Ann O’Brien responded to the February 11 violence by urging her peers to help protect police forces with the kind of specialized drones that law enforcement members elsewhere in the US have used for a variety of purposes – including advanced surveillance of tense or risky confrontations. Officially tabled by O’Brien in the hours after the violence, the proposal is slated to be put to a vote by municipal representatives Wednesday.

Following the example of Greater Phoenix Area neighbor Scottsdale – which has used the craft for fire, search and rescue, and gas detection – the Phoenix City Council voted last month to approve use of UAVS by its firefighters. Yet a similar motion approving drone operation by Phoenix police failed amid public concerns about privacy implications.

“We’re the fifth-largest city in the country and our men and women in blue deserve to have drones for their safety and the safety of citizens in the city,” O’Brien said before re-introducing the measure. “This kind of attack on people that just want to keep their community members safe is absolutely unacceptable… I do believe that we can put together policies that will protect our citizens’ right to privacy while allowing men and women to do their job in a safer way.”

Five Phoenix police officers were hit by gunfire, and another four injured by shrapnel after responding to a 911 call Friday reporting a woman had been shot inside a house. After arrival, cops ordered the assailant to surrender his weapon and leave the home, which the suspect refused to do, leading a stand-off and eventual hail of bullets. The shooter was found dead inside the house, and his ex-girlfriend who’d been held inside eventually died from her wounds.

February 28 Update

A re-tabled motion allowing Phoenix police to immediately begin procurement of up to $516,000 in drones was approved 6-3 by the City Council last week after often tense debate.

Coming in the wake of the February 11 violence, enough previously dissenting members reversed their position to give Phoenix cops the go-ahead, despite their earlier concerns about privacy protection and other matters. Opponents stood firm on arguments law enforcement officials should provide a policy of operation for the Council to accept before it cleared the way for drone purchases.

Ultimately, a majority accepted reasoning that in the time required to select, buy, and receive its drone, Phoenix police would be able to draw up and present an operational framework – an order of action that would speed eventual use of the craft in dangerous situations.

Use of drones for surveillance and advance scouting in such dangerous situations were among the specific missions the Dallas Police Department cited in announcing its expanded deployment of UAVs last month – and addressing the same privacy concerns that prevailed in Phoenix. The craft are being used by a growing number of polices forces and other first responders across the US for a variety of objectives.

Constabularies in the UK have similarly embraced the aerial technology in a big way, earning plaudits for their work with UAVs along the way. In the hopes of eventually expanding that activity, several municipal and regional police forces in England have been selected to test beyond visual line of sight drone flights, in addition to other currently restricted operation.

Photo: Chris Tingom/Upsplash

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