County Commission Debates, Delays Drones

By Bill Dries

Shelby County Commissioners had little trouble Monday, May 7, approving the first of three readings of a redistricting plan.

There were a few questions about procedure as the commission makes its fourth try at setting new district lines for itself. But commissioners didn’t get into any of the specifics of a plan. That should change on second reading in two weeks.

For this week, the ordinance had nine votes. It only needed seven to pass on first and second readings. It needs a nine-vote two-thirds majority for third and final reading.

The commission’s real debate Monday was a $400,000 federal Homeland Security grant for the Shelby County Sheriff’s office. The commission’s debate was specifically about plans by the sheriff’s office to buy two miniature helicopter drones. Sheriff’s brass say they would use the drones for missions like searching for lost children or monitoring bridges across the Mississippi River.

The commission delayed accepting the grant money for all of the items, however, after a majority on the 13-member body expressed concerns about how the surveillance technology could be abused. The item is back on the commission’s agenda in two weeks with more questions and debate certain in committee sessions next week.

“The potential for abuse is great,” said commissioner Brent Taylor. “They could peer into our private spaces without a warrant.”

Taylor also warned that the U.S. is on its way to becoming a “surveillance society” with that and other technology.

“Something has to happen for us to use this tool,” argued Sheriff’s Office Chief Administrative Officer Chuck Fox. “This is a tool you can trust us with.”

But Taylor and other commissioners said the guidelines for its use were not adequate. They complained that assurances from Sheriff’s Office officials that abuses were unlikely because sheriff’s deputies “take an oath” to protect the public should be accompanied by a specific agreement for how to use the drones between Sheriff Bill Oldham and the commission.