911, what’s your emergency? Our drone is on the way

Amid budget cuts, the Denver Police Department will soon begin using drones as first responders. The city officials say drones will not replace human cops. Sure.

The Denver police have long been drone-averse, having shelved the only unmanned aerial vehicle they occasionally operated in 2018.

Now, amid significant budget cuts in a city dealing with thousands of incoming migrants, all hesitations have gone up in the air, it seems. After the force’s budget was slashed by $8.4 million, the plan is to roll out new drones for response to certain 911 emergency calls.

Thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Denver Police Foundation, drones are being reintroduced. However, they will only be deployed to respond to non-critical situations.

A lack of money means that Denver cannot afford to send human officers to every location automatically. However, two-legged patrols will respond to a situation if a caller specifically requests the physical presence of an officer.

“The DPD would respond to any call for service where someone is physically requesting a police officer on scene. We would never simply replace calls-for-service response by police officers,” the Denver Police Department’s Strategic Initiatives Bureau director Phil Gonshak told The Denver Post.

“But if there was a fight at Colfax and Cherokee and we put a drone in the air and there is no fight and nothing causing traffic issues, then we would reroute our police officers to other emergency calls.”

Essentially, drones will be used to scope out the location of a reported incident and stream live video back to the operator in a patrol vehicle, who could then provide real-time updates to responding officers.

"We're doing the crawl, walk, run approach with our drone program," said Gonshak but added that, ultimately, the goal would be to turn drones into default first respondents – the information they would relay would help the police decide if human cops need to react as well.

The American Civil Liberties Union has long been raising the alarm over law enforcement’s use of drones – activists are worried about privacy and excessive surveillance.

More than 1,400 law enforcement agencies across the United States are already using drones for a wide range of activities – from traffic surveillance and missing person searches to first response to crimes in progress.

“Drones have many beneficial uses, including in search-and-rescue missions, scientific research, mapping, and more. But deployed without proper regulation, drones equipped with facial recognition software, infrared technology, and speakers capable of monitoring personal conversations would cause unprecedented invasions of our privacy rights,” says the ACLU.

“Interconnected drones could enable mass tracking of vehi­cles and people in wide areas. Tiny drones could go completely unnoticed while peering into the window of a home or place of worship.”

According to the ACLU, drones should only be used with a warrant or in an emergency, and the images should be retained only when they could contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.