Death from Above

We give cops power, but the means shouldn't be unlimited.

USA Today informs us:

Criminals in North Dakota may soon find themselves zapped by Tasers from on high.

That's one of the possibilities presented by the state's House Bill 1328, which allows police departments to equip drones with non-lethal weapons such as Tasers, tear gas, and rubber bullets.

The new law went into effect this past August 1.  New technological innovations take time to materialize; there are as yet no police drones equipped with Tasers.

This hasn't stopped a fair deal of controversy.  Even the bill's author is reconsidering, saying he may want to remove that provision when the legislature is next in session two years hence.

Isn't this a little inconsistent, though?  It's fairly well accepted that police have the authority to use deadly force against you if you are posing a deadly threat to someone else.  Nobody has any objections in principle to police using a measured degree of non-deadly force to get you to obey.  The Taser was specifically designed as a non-lethal way of stopping a criminal, its intended harmlessness emphasized by being named after a classic children's book character.

As with most things "harmless," Tasers do occasionally kill people, but they are certainly less lethal than bullets.  If you had a choice, which would you rather a police officer used on you, a Taser or a handgun?  If we trust police with devices such as rifles which can cause death from a few hundred yards away, what's the philosophical difference between giving them the power to (mostly) non-lethally stun suspects from a few hundred feet up in the air?

There seems to be a lot of fuzzy thinking regarding police.  No civilized person wants to see officers of the law come to harm, the "Black Lives Matter" barbarians being excepted by reason of their behavior.  It's only humane to provide as much personal protection to cops as can be reasonably afforded.

That sort of protection gets more cost-effective every day, with ever improving military technology coming down into the financial reach of local police departments.  Why shouldn't cops wear military tactical flak jackets and helmets?  They save lives every day in combat zones, why shouldn't they save the lives of our boys in blue - even if they're wearing black?

The same applies to police equipment.  We don't like to see patrolmen shot up in their squad cars.  Of course, anybody can be shot in their car depending on where they are driving, but it's common sense to expect this to happen more often to the police.

Why, therefore, shouldn't the police use armored vehicles?  They do a dangerous job, and aside from the human cost, training new police officers is expensive not to mention paying widows' pensions.  Better to protect the ones we have.

By the same token, we all know that a policeman on the beat can see a crime in progress and immediately arrest the perp.  Logically and Constitutionally, what's the difference from police-monitored surveillance cameras watching unblinking for crimes and dispatching arrest teams as required?

There are a vast number of crimes that go unpunished simply because there are not enough cops to go around, but modern technology offers a comprehensive solution to this problem.  In times past, speed limits were a joke because only a tiny fraction of people speeding could be ticketed by police at ten minutes or so per stop.  Today, with automatic radar cameras - well, one speed camera in Maryland issued a staggering 27,000 tickets in a year.  How many hundreds of cops would it take to do that?

Camera and computer technology is cheap enough now that a complete end to speeding can be envisioned in the near future, or rather, every time you sped you'd get a ticket without fail, so you probably wouldn't do it much.  How much further away is an end at least to public and violent crime, by virtue of facial-recognition cameras that track where everybody is whenever they are in public?  The courts have long since ruled that you have no expectation of privacy on a public sidewalk or street because a cop could see you there; what's the difference if it's a camera doing the watching and a cop viewing it later?

This is where the logic falls down.  Yes, logically, a camera is doing the same thing as a cop on the beat.  But precisely because there are a limited number of cops and a potentially unlimited number of cameras, a surveillance state is by definition unfree.  There is a vast difference between potentially being watched and always without fail being watched with unlimited playback capability accessible to anyone who can hack into the video archive.

No, we don't want cops killed, but in most circumstances, we don't want them operating as an occupying army or an ever-present Gestapo either.  North Dakota needs to shoot down the Taser drone bill.  What's more, it doesn't seem to us that a free country should allow the police to use drones or cell phone tracking at all without a warrant signed by a judge and justified by probable cause.

Otherwise, it won't be long before the wrong person gets zapped by drone lighting out of a clear blue sky.  It might even be you.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Law.
Reader Comments

For my part, I'm not sure why we seed such things to the courts: "courts have said" that there is no expectation of privacy? Do legislatures have nothing to say on this matter? Yet again, there is another reason and justification for federalism. Let Baltimore, for example, pepper their streets with speed cameras and surveillance, and let Pittsburgh do the opposite, and let us see where citizens are happier and safer. Never mind these damn courts; I'm sick to bleeping death of them.

September 14, 2015 11:08 PM
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