The concept of drones tracking Americans during a pandemic, scolding them and taking their body temperatures without permission is something out of a dystopian science fiction universe.
Blessedly, because we all don’t have enough to worry about this panicked springtime, police are making that vision a reality for us.
In Volusia County, Florida — home to Daytona Beach and a popular tourist destination — the sheriff’s office has more than a dozen drones that it can put in the air to make sure people practice social distancing.
According to Fox News, Kim Andrade had an encounter with one of these drones as she walked along the beach. She took a few photos of the drone, which emitted a warning through its speakers.
“This is the Volusia Sheriff’s office, please adhere to social-distancing guidelines,” the drone told Andrade.
“It speaks? They can speak through it? Wow,” a stunned Andrade told Fox News.
The Volusia County Sheriff’s Office currently has 18 of these things that they’re deploying to disperse people who aren’t socially distancing without having to get a deputy involved.
“Unfortunately in law enforcement, we can’t practice social distancing,” Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said. “People are still committing crimes, people are still being knuckleheads and having these pop-up block parties.”
With the drones, Chitwood said, they could break up gatherings without having to risk police officers getting coronavirus.
“We can say ‘hey, you in the blue shirt, we’re watching. And, we don’t want to send deputies in, so why don’t you respect us and follow the guidelines and let’s break up this party,'” he said.
In Daytona Beach itself, they actually have drones which will take your temperature. This is all apparently very necessary and won’t erode trust in law enforcement in any appreciable manner.
The drones are equipped with a device known as a FLIR (a not-at-all creepy acronym for Forward Looking Infrared) which can detect people’s temperatures in a range between 99 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Let’s say if you have a 103 fever. That’ll come in handy letting us know at a glance, ‘Are you someone who possibly has the virus?’ ‘Do we need to make sure you have extra precautions,’” Sgt. Tim Ehrenkaufer, the head of the Daytona Beach drone unit, told WOFL.
We’ve been told that coronavirus can be very debilitating, particularly if you get to the point where you have a 103-degree temperature. Not having had it myself but judging by the stories I’ve heard, I tend to believe that. Also, this is just a postulate, but even if you’re not on your way to the ICU, you’re also not on your way to the beach or robbing a bank.
Ehrenkaufer’s attitude was the same as Chitwood’s: This is all about keeping police officers out of the fray.
“We’re reducing the officer having to go out there, walk into the park property, walking into a crowd of people, share those germs back and forth just to deliver a message that, ‘The park’s closed. Don’t be in here,'” he said.
It’s not just Florida, in case you were wondering.
In Meriden, Connecticut, the mayor touted the fact the police “have launched their drone, which will be used to remind residents of the social distancing orders that are in place.”
Taking the prize for sheer creepiness is Elizabeth, New Jersey, where drones with a recorded message from Mayor Chris Bollwage telling social-distancing recalcitrants to “stop gathering, disperse and go home” will patrol the streets, according to The Hill.
And of course, they defended their use of the drones with the “just one life” gambit:
Regarding comments on drones, we are trying to save lives, not be big brother. If this plan saves 1 life, then its worth it. All its doing is spreading an automated notice about social distance. No recording or pictures are taken, just a tool of encouragement to follow the rules. pic.twitter.com/KnptwsxBQ2
— Elizabeth NJ Police (@epdnj) April 8, 2020
Fine. Look, let’s just go all-out at this point. Paint all these drones gunmetal grey, and equip them with body modifications that make them look like cacotopian insects. After they tell people on mostly empty hiking trails to disperse and go home, have the drones read the script to Apple’s “1984” commercial: “Today we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives.”
This isn’t to simply beat up on police, who are making choices they never thought they’d have to make because of coronavirus.
I can understand, if not fully comprehend, the fear first responders face right now. Several of my friends are police officers or married to them. It’s not just the fear of knowing you might not come home at the end of your shift anymore that gets them, it’s the very fear of knowing you might come home with a deadly pathogen.
That said, this doesn’t mean they’re immune from criticism when they make a poor choice — in this case, I’d argue a very poor one.
Whatever the benefit this sort of drone usage might confer, it’s outweighed by the cost of eroded trust in the authorities and the unseemly parallels to a full-on surveillance state.
The idea that drones represent the path of least resistance in a time of crisis is a short-sighted decision with long-term consequences.
This is the kind of thing that drives people to the steps of state capitols (something I decidedly don’t encourage), which is a social-distancing nightmare that becomes inevitable when government decides playing Big Brother is the most expedient way to deal with its problems.
Perhaps most troubling in all of the stories and news releases I read, barely any of the law enforcement officials quoted seemed to grasp the possibility of unforeseen consequences from drone usage.
Where they even acknowledged an issue, they fell back on the idea that it was all worth it if it saved just one life. If the fear that mass protests — like we’ve witnessed in Michigan and Minnesota — which could infect more people and cost more lives might play out in their own communities entered the decision-making calculus, it wasn’t in evidence anywhere I could find.
This is a stunning failure of messaging in a matter where messaging is the whole ballgame.
We’ve seen dystopian movies.
Unless police can assure a restive public this won’t end the same way, they’re potentially putting themselves on a collision course with a problem much worse than the one they aim to solve.
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