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Beverly Hills Police Expand Drone Surveillance Program

The Ethics of Privacy in the Age of Smash-and-Grab

Beverly Hills—seeking, perhaps, to incur the collective wrath of Marvel and its lawyers—has bolstered the ranks of its drone fleet with a new device known as Hawkeye. The sophisticated contraption is designed to help safeguard the affluent Los Angeles suburb’s gilded streets by affording responding police officers overhead views of crime scenes, and aiding in locating and pursuing fleeing suspects.

In keeping with its apposite, if not cloyingly cliché, moniker, Hawkeye–by dint of its high-resolution camera–is able to read vehicle license plates over distances of up to 800-meters. That such capability invites praise from engineers and skepticism from philosophers and historians encapsulates the ethical conundrum to which Hawkeye and its ilk have given rise–but more on that later.

After the fashion of many California cities, Beverly Hills’s downtown district has seen a worrying increase in smash-and-grab robberies. In December 2021, the city’s police department launched its first drone patrols as part of a larger effort to mitigate the surge of predatory larceny. On 27 December 2022, by way of a series of social media posts highlighting the platform’s capabilities, the Beverly Hills Police Department (BHPD) introduced Hawkeye to the community it would presently monitor in perpetuity.

The new high-tech camera-drone is part of the BHPD’s Real Time Watch Center, a citywide surveillance initiative comprising live video feed from cameras, automatic license plate readers, and drones dispersed throughout Beverly Hills’s 5.71-square-miles.

Lieutenant Robert Maycott of the BHPD remarked: “I’ve been on the job for 28-years. We didn’t have what I call now the 3D incident command space, which allows us to use drones … and other technology to enhance the officers’ operational ability.”

The improved lenses and three-dimensional mobility of contemporary drones provide Beverly Hills police superior images at longer distances than the stationary ground cameras upon which the department was formerly dependent.

Initially approved by the city council in April 2022, the Real Time Watch Center program has thus far cost Beverly Hills a comparatively modest $498,000. City officials, however, have approved more than $2.4-million for the program’s expansion throughout fiscal 2023. Pressed to enumerate the drones at the BHPD’s disposal, the city council’s tenor waned reticent. The body disclosed only that the annual cost of Beverly Hills’s drone program is approximately $450,000.

During a 01 November 2022 briefing before the city council, BHPD Chief Mark Stainbrook credited the Real Time Watch Center with the 34-percent decrease in crime Beverly Hills allegedly saw in the four-months following the program’s June 2022 inception.

Chief Stainbrook set forth that between January and October 2022, BHPD drones undertook 2,384 flights, including responses to 1,283 police radio calls. In approximately 674 instances, the drones arrived at crime scenes prior to responding police officers.

“The drone has really been an effective tool, sort of an immediate air support if you will,” Stainbrook enthused.

Collectively, the BHPD states its drones have been used to overfly the city seeking out suspicious activity. Whether and how the department’s training and operational manuals define “suspicious” is unknown. The BHPD further cites 317 occasions on which its drones were dispatched to monitor traffic stops.

Notwithstanding the ostensible success of endeavors the likes of Beverly Hills’s Real Time Watch Center, the rapid adoption and unchecked deployment of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) sporting sophisticated surveillance systems has raised concerns over citizens’ privacy.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation—a non-profit organization about the noble endeavors of advocating for digital privacy and monitoring the expansion of technologies used by law enforcement—asserts that more than 1,200 U.S. police departments and enforcement agencies currently utilize surveillance drones.

To the subject of employing newfangled gadgets to wantonly surveil a citizenry for purpose of arbitrarily observing its behaviors and summarily judging and punishing such, America’s Founding Fathers posited: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” –Ninth U.S. Constitutional Amendment, 1791.



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