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St. Louis police chief wants drones to monitor city

Published time: June 27, 2013 20:47
St. Louis Police Capt. Sam Dotson (Image from slmpd.org)

St. Louis Police Capt. Sam Dotson (Image from slmpd.org)

A Missouri police chief has asked the Federal Aviation Administration for his very own surveillance drone, which he would use to conduct police chases and monitor the city for criminals.

“To help keep officers safe, to help keep the community safe. For monitoring public spaces – things like the upcoming Fair St. Louis [and] baseball games – for terrorists, suspicious activity,” St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson told KSDK.

The police chief does not like to use the word ‘drone’, so in his request to the FAA, he asked for permission to use an ‘unmanned surveillance vehicle’, he told KTVI. Dotson believes the surveillance vehicles would help police capture fleeing criminals and ultimately reduce crime in St. Louis.

“Criminals believe, and with some truth, that if they flee from police officers, officers will not pursue and they will ultimately elude capture,” Dotson wrote in hisMarch 25letter to the FAA. “If we are serious about crime reduction strategies, we must look to new technologies which help keep officers and the public safe and apprehend criminals.”

Dotson says purchasing drones, at the price of $80,000-$300,000 a piece, is a more cost-effective solution than purchasing helicopters, which cost about $2-$2.5 million. Some surveillance drones can even cost less than $10,000, Dotson told Fox2 News. The newest generation of surveillance drones can be as small as a coffee cup and do not carry any weapons.

If approved to employ a drone, Doston said he would seek out donations and grants to buy the unmanned surveillance vehicle.

News of Dotson’s intentions has concerned privacy advocates, who are already complaining about the FBI’s use of drones for domestic surveillance. Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Eastern Missouri, told the St Louis Post-Dispatch that the police chief is taking surveillance too far.

“This is a significant expansion of government surveillance,” he said. “Our laws have not kept up with our privacy rights. Our Fourth Amendment privacy rights aren’t safe from unreasonable search and seizure when you’re looking at drones."

The St. Louis Police Department is not the first to request drones for domestic surveillance purposes. The Electronic Frontier Foundation last year discovered that dozens of police agencies had submitted FAA applications, requesting permission for drone usage. The FAA has only granted permission to about a half-dozen of these police departments, most of which are in rural areas and thus unable to interfere with airports, the St. Louis-Post Dispatch reports.

The FAA does not allow the use of drones for commercial purposes, and requires the vehicles to fly below 400 feet.