A plan by the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office to buy two miniature helicopter drones hit some political turbulence Monday, May 7, among Shelby County Commissioners concerned about privacy issues.
“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.”
Fox and other Sheriff’s Office brass say they would use the drones for missions like searching for lost children or monitoring bridges across the Mississippi River.
But there weren’t seven votes on the commission to approve accepting the $400,000 federal grant from the Homeland Security Department to buy the drones as well as other items including diving gear. The commission delayed the item for two weeks and there is certain to be more debate and more questions during committee sessions next week.
The discussion Monday began with Lee Cochran telling commissioners the drones were an indication of “Homeland Security fascism.”
“These are little black helicopters,” said Cochran, who at past meetings has spoken against an ordinance setting standards for pet care in the county outside Memphis, linking that as well to unwarranted government intrusion. Cochran told the commission Monday “re-education camps” are already being planned by the federal government. “It’s all over the Internet,” he said.
Nobody on the commission talked about camps or fascism. Most agreed the drones could be a useful tool for law enforcement. But most also said there is the potential for abuse without a specific set of guidelines that until Monday Sheriff Bill Oldham appeared to rule out.
Commissioner Heidi Shafer cautioned that there would be some “mission creep” in the surveillance and she was among those on the commission who said the hardline on negotiating terms by the Sheriff’s Office wasn’t helping.
“I’m getting pushback and I’m only asking for what is reasonable,” she said. “I don’t want to go there with a blank check.”
Commissioner Steve Mulroy echoed the sentiment.
“The question is do we get the drones with a blank check,” he said.
Oldham wasn’t present for the meeting. But Fox repeated the Sheriff’s Office stand at the beginning – that because officers are sworn to uphold the law there was no basis for binding regulations. When asked specifically by Commissioner Mike Ritz if Oldham would agree to sign an agreement with the commission on guidelines for the use of the drones, Fox said he would have to consult the Sheriff’s Office attorney. Ritz said he doubted there would be an agreement.
Taylor and other commissioners said the guidelines proposed Monday 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.
Commissioner Wyatt Bunker said that could be problematic citing an instance where a manned full-sized helicopter might spot a patch of marijuana growing as it searched for someone reported missing. Bunker argued officers would have an obligation to report the sighting, get a search warrant and follow through on the sighting of the marijuana regardless of any agreement limiting the use of the technology.
The drones, Fox argued, are limited in their abilities by their relatively small size but they would be able to broadcast and store real-time video from several hundred feet above. The drones could not operate at night or in rain or high winds.
Commissioner Terry Roland argued Memphis Police have the same capability with full-sized manned helicopters.
“The technology is already out there,” he said. “Unless you’re doing something wrong, they probably aren’t looking at you.”
Just minutes before the commission meeting, commissioners were handed a draft of some proposed rules that included the caveat that the conditions could include the set of rules but would not be limited to them.
“If these aren’t the rules, what are the rules?” asked Commissioner Walter Bailey.
Commissioner James Harvey, like Roland, didn’t see a problem with the drones.
But he told Fox the unwillingness to talk terms for their use was creating more political resistance than necessary.
“If you come before this commission and don’t respect us,” Harvey said, “we’re all likely to rise up against you.”