The drone.
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  • The drone.

This story was already mentioned in today's Morning News, but a few more details on last night's clusterfuck of a community forum on the drones ("unmanned aerial vehicles") that the SPD would like to use to assist its policing.

Seattle police officers—including public spokespersons and members of its CBRNE (chemical/biological/radiological/nuclear/explosive) and Homeland Security bureaus—showed up to the Garfield Community Center with one drone and a PowerPoint presentation. They were ready for some skepticism and maybe a little hostility, but seemed taken aback by the explosion of bile that dominated last night's forum.

Activists shouted down officers and generally disrupted the event. Some citizens who showed up wanting a discussion seemed irritated by the circus, but I suspect that was all part of the plan—rather than let the forum happen quietly, with a quiet Q&A that might be ignored, activists hoped to create maximum disruption for the TV cameras and journalists like me, who would be more likely to report on it, which would create a sense of great community opposition to the drones. The most popular chant of the night: "No drones! No drones!"

The exasperation.
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  • The exasperation.

Even though the disruption was a tactic (in which a few people hollered about Hurricane Katrina and European fascism), some of the shouted questions were pointed and worth answering. As one man kept yelling: "We don't trust you with the weapons you do have." (The drones aren't technically a weapon yet, but even at this early moment in the drone debate, some police chiefs are already talking about arming them with tear gas and rubber bullets.)

One woman asked, during a moment of relative quiet, whether the SPD's use of drones were a foregone conclusion or "do we get to choose?" Another man asked/shouted: "My question is simple. What's the return policy for the drones?"

The guiding sentiment behind the questions seemed to be that at a time of tension between SPD and Seattle citizens, and the long shadow of the Department of Justice report that accuses the SPD of systematic problems and abuses of authority, why should this department be leading the country in the legally shaky world of drone-based law enforcement? I had a chance to ask Lt. Greg Sackman, who is the lead on the drone project, in a relatively quiet corner during the forum.

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"Nobody wants to be spied on, not even myself," Lt. Sackman said. He added that restrictions on drone use are basically nonexistent for hobbysits and that law-enforcement was trying to come up with appropriate guidelines—crime-scene photography, accident-scene photography, and other cases where a drone could record information more cheaply and safely than deploying human officers.

"Seattle is at the forefront," he said. "A lot of other cities are behind us and waiting to see what happens—we want to do it right." As for the disruption at the forum? "I don't mind this," he said, gesturing around the noisy room. "People have concerns and we have to address them. And we have to do a better job of explaining what these things can and can't do. We have to earn people's trust."

But, he added, law enforcement use of drones is probably a foregone conclusion. "It's coming," he said. "It's just a matter of time."