POST 5: POLICE DRONES

Happy New Year. I sincerely hope this year is better than last – time will tell! I intended to post this at the end of last year but something came up and I hadn't really finished it so I didn't. It's still super rough – maybe I will return to some ideas in it in the future.


Police Drone – image taken from @policerones


Since starting this page I always intended to write something about police drones; I've had a load of articles bookmarked for ages – most from back in March last year when they became a bit of a hot-topic (see bellow image) – but I suppose never really had any coherent argument to make (and in many ways still don't). That said, given the title of this blog/side/page and some of the topics my PhD research covers I do have some thoughts and ideas which I will try my best to sketch out. They're mostly directly related to the incident bellow, but I suppose some of them may be more generalisable.


If you're not aware of the incident read about it here but in short: in March 2020 in order to police Covid-19 lockdown, Derbyshire police deployed drones recording (and then sharing images of) walkers in the Peak District.


Due to the slightly sporadic nature of the ideas bellow I will bullet point.


Derbyshire use police drone during Lockdown in UK


> Controversy – Probably the fist thing to say is that the use of drones (especially in the case of Covid policing) seems to cause a degree controversy, Big Brother Watch, for example, described the footage in the above example as 'chilling' whereas Lord Sumption claimed that it "shamed our policing traditions." The Law Society even claimed that the footage might be in breach of data protection legislation. Anyway, the Chief Constable of Derbyshire took the decision a couple of weeks later to take early retirement a move which was seemingly related.


> I must admit when I saw the footage on Twitter, I didn't at first find it overly problematic, and instead just thought that it was really bad PR. I think my first thoughts was around wether it was proportionate – which is I suppose was more up for debate at that time during the pandemic [1]. As far as the people on the moors are concerned, although stars, or rather villains, of the film, they were neither approached by the police nor paid fines. The film was intended to articulate the surveillant abilities of the police as a warning rather than to document of present police work. It is what Mawby would call a piece of police 'image work'. I will come back to this bellow.


> But why so controversial? Obviously that's hard to know for sure, but Lord Sumption's point touches on something which I think is quite important. That is, it seems at odds with our 'policing traditions'. Although of course policing is hugely technical, we don't tend to think of policing in England and Wales as an overly technological affair. I'd even argue that policing by consent is thought about almost entirely in terms of police presence both in and on our streets: George Dixon wouldn't fly a drone, even if he could. But, surveillance using technology is nothing new; in the UK especially, CCTV is omnipresent and is banal. Instead, I think, the controversy has more to do with drones, what they represent, and the kinds and qualities of the footage they they are able to produce.


> Drones – Drones make us think of science fiction. For example: The tunnel mapping drones in Ridley Scotts Prometheus (2012) (see bellow) or Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1929). They act as a short-hand for a technological futures (and often for technological dystopias). See here for a good discussion of technological utopias / dystopias etc.


Within these fictions drones are generally unmanned (unwomanned), the seeming autonomy or the lack of transparency in regard to who is in control often providing jeopardy in the fiction but opening opening up serious questions regarding legitimacy in the context of policing.


Footage – Drone footage adds a degree of the cinematic to images of policing. It's a viewpoint which we traditionally do not see, the preserve of high budget films (or, helicopter chases). The novelty of the footage and its cinematic qualities is arguably why Derbyshire police force decided to use it – in competitive attention economy it grabs peoples attention –but it reminds us of the autonomy of the technology and lack of accountability too.


The verticality of the footage too visually reminds us this is surveillance: literately being watched from above!


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> As touched upon above it's important to note that in this incident, what we are discussing is not strictly the policing of people using drones. If the police in Derbyshire had simply Tweeted 'we will be using police drones this weekend as we manage the situation surrounding Covid-19' or something to that effect it the incident would not, I imagine, have become such a – I wouldn't be writing about it. What we're discussing is then about tone.


For sure, the communication (or 'image work') of police technological capabilities will be of critical importance for police forces – especially those who police by consent – in the months/years to come.

Anyway, those are my two-cents, or two-pence, or whatever. Apologies. this was ROUGH! I may return to some of the ideas in the future


T x


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FOOTNOTES:

[1] It retrospect it is clearly not proportionate. It's also worth saying that if the police were using drones to locate a missing person, or to capture someone wanted for a violent crime we probably wouldn't question their use at all.


& Some links:

1// A Message on a Drone, a TikTok and a Socially Distant Date: Here's the Story Behind a Viral Meet-Cute


2// Hacking the cult of the future An interview with novelist and journalist Tim Maughan