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At least four Inland Southern California law enforcement agencies are deploying or preparing to deploy drones in ways, they say, will serve the public.

• Finding lost hikers shivering in the cold in the local mountains or withering in the searing heat of the lower desert.

• Taking detailed photos and video from a sweeping bird’s-eye view of a major traffic accident or crime scene.

• Peering in windows of suspects’ cars during standoffs or gun battles.

“Drones are going to be commonplace, eventually,” Hemet Police Chief David Brown said recently. “And people won’t think twice about it.”

Not everyone is thrilled with the concept of skies filled with remote-controlled
cop-copters.

Peter Bibring, director of police practices for ACLU of California and senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, said because there is potential for abuse, limits should be established up front.

“Mission creep is a perennial problem for new surveillance technologies,” Bibring said. “A department may give one reason for acquiring a technology, such as search and rescue missions. But once they have that there is pressure to use it for any circumstance they can to justify that acquisition.”

In community after community, the battle lines are being drawn. On the glass half full side, there is the demonstrated capability to save lives and manage disasters. The glass half empty sees the demonstrated potential to infringe on privacy and conduct illegal surveillance. It is also where federal statutes meet the concerns and demands of communities and local legislators.

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