Santa Monica, Cal., started a “drones as first responder” program, dispatching a drone from the roof of the police station after someone calls 911, NBC News reports. Officers respond, too, but the drone frequently arrives first. “It’s a fundamental change in the way that we can bring policing services to our city,” said Peter Lashley, a veteran of the force who often pilots the drone. At a time when law enforcement agencies face a crisis of legitimacy amid a series of high-profile murder cases against officers, police say drones could make a huge impact by defusing potentially violent situations. Their proliferation is also likely to prompt fears about risks to privacy and a renewed debate about the balance of power between ordinary people and the government.
The courts have found that blanket aerial police surveillance over an entire city is unconstitutional. “We respond to 911 calls for service,” said Lashley. “We don’t randomly fly over the city looking for people doing anything wrong.” Police have long dabbled with drones, but using them to respond to 911 calls is relatively new and rare. Over the past two years, the program has spread rapidly around Los Angeles — Beverly Hills and Redondo Beach have adopted it, in addition to Santa Monica, as have a dozen or so other departments nationwide. The Balimore Banner reports that Baltimore police have proposed using drones for SWAT operations and crime scene evidence investigation.