When government business is done in secret, there’s good reason for skepticism. After all, if everything is above board, then why keep the details hidden from public view? Yet the Boston Police Department has a history of acquiring new surveillance technology without so much as giving the City Council a heads-up. And so when the public does find out about various BPD programs or purchases — be it through investigations or the press — then the law enforcement agency needs to be prepared to answer some questions.
According to a recent Globe report, the BPD quietly purchased a $25,000 high-performance drone in early March, adding to its stockpile of drones in active use. The department has also taken steps to expand its drone surveillance program and establish a team of 15 officers who would operate the aircrafts on an on-call basis. And even though any surveillance technology has the potential to be misused — do you want a police drone loitering over your backyard? — the City Council has been mostly left in the dark about the technology that the police department has obtained and plans to use.
The good news is that the era of the BPD purchasing surveillance technology in secret is coming to an end next month because of an ordinance that the City Council passed last fall. The new law requires the police department to get permission from the council before buying new surveillance equipment, starting July 20, and it also allows the council to review the technology that police already have and determine whether or not they can still use it.
The bad news is that the BPD is still not being very forthright about what safeguards the agency is putting in place to ensure that people’s privacy rights are not infringed upon. While the police department says that its use of the technology would be sparse, mostly used for crime scene reconstruction or large-scale events like the Boston Marathon, police use of drones elsewhere in the country shows that the technology can be, and has been, deployed for a lot more.
For example, they were used to monitor some George Floyd protests in 2020, which raised concerns about the government potentially infringing on the demonstrators’ right to peacefully assemble, particularly when coupled with the explicit intent to crack down on those protests by then-president Donald Trump. Drones have also been used to patrol homeless encampments, which could create greater distrust between homeless people and the government and potentially further criminalize homelessness by over-surveilling that population.
When the Globe editorial board reached out to the BPD to ask about what guardrails are being implemented around its growing drone-surveillance program, a spokesman sent the agency’s rules for the spy gear. And while that document outlines when the surveillance technology should be deployed, it leaves room for it to be used for potentially anything by not explicitly limiting its use to a specific set of situations. When asked to expand on the processes the department will adopt in order to minimize the risk of misusing the technology, the BPD did not elaborate beyond saying that this program has to abide by the city’s existing surveillance ordinance, which requires the department to submit reports to the City Council on what they’re using surveillance technology for after the fact.
This is also not the first time the BPD has been so coy about sharing information on its surveillance technology. Last year, WBUR and ProPublica found that the police department had purchased spy equipment with civil-forfeiture funds, which are hidden from the public since that money is not a part of the agency’s official annual budget.
That’s why it’s critical that once the new police surveillance ordinance takes effect next month, the City Council take its new responsibilities seriously and thoroughly review what technology the BPD has and how it uses it, creating new parameters or curtailing it altogether if the reason for using such technology is not convincing.
New technology isn’t necessarily bad, and innovations like helicopters and shot-detection networks have been integrated into policing. While drones can certainly be a helpful tool too, the key is to properly limit their use so that people’s privacy rights are respected. But despite the fact that more and more police agencies have been purchasing drones, federal lawmakers have been mostly asleep at the wheel. They’ve allowed a patchwork of rules and regulations to crop up, with different jurisdictions imposing different standards. At some point, its incumbent on Congress to step up to better articulate how drones ought to be used by local law enforcement agencies so as to better protect people’s Fourth Amendment rights against unwarranted searches. One easy way to do that is to require that law enforcement agencies obtain a warrant before they can use drones.
Until then, people need to rely on their local law enforcement agencies and state lawmakers to better regulate police drones. And so far, the BPD hasn’t been as reassuring as citizens have a right to expect. After all, if residents don’t have anything to worry about, then why has the agency been turning to hidden money to purchase the technology in secret? Hopefully, when the new ordinance takes effect next month, the BPD will be prepared with better answers.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.