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Originally published February 12, 2013 at 4:38 PM | Page modified February 12, 2013 at 4:37 PM

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Editorial: Seattle Mayor McGinn right to ground drones

Seattle Police Department’s aerial drone program got ahead of public opinion and public policy.

Seattle Times Editorial

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SEATTLE Mayor Mike McGinn’s abrupt decision to halt the Seattle Police Department’s plan to deploy aerial drones will send the two vehicles back to the vendor.

McGinn made a wholly appropriate decision. It was simply bad timing to acquire the drones ahead of having established operating procedures and requirements for rigorous performance reviews.

Boisterous public expression of concerns about potential invasions of personal privacy and the Seattle City Council’s catch-up efforts to write an ordinance to cover drone use helped doom the plan.

Seattle residents find the whole notion of surveillance more than a bit creepy, and that includes the news about a phalanx of cameras on the waterfront to watch harbor and port activities. A lot of communities across the country share similar concerns about drones and surveillance.

As was noted in an editorial last May, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington has been a persistent critic, raising questions about usage restrictions, image-retention limits, and regular audits and reviews of drones as a law-enforcement tool.

That same editorial noted that an assistant Seattle police chief appeared before the council to apologize for not keeping the council informed.

Almost a year later, the City Council is still trying to sort out why policy was being drafted after the Police Department had acquired two drones with federal grants.

Councilmember Sally Clark noted this week that if the topic of drones comes up again, she wants to hear from the Police Department about the need for the equipment, how and when it might be used, and how gathered information would be retained.

The draft ordinance before the council had provisions for getting warrants, and data retention, with gaping clauses for special circumstances.

Do the regulatory and policy work that would allay fears about the use and abuse of drones with high-resolution cameras, heat sensors, radar, zoom lenses, night vision, see-through imaging and video analytics.

Shipping the two drones back to their manufacturer is a good start. The technology potentially has value to support law enforcement in emergency situations. Such circumstances must be defined ahead of time by ordinance.

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