After years of writing critically about police officers using excessive force and police departments abusing surveillance technology, I couldn’t be happier to relay a story in which cops used drones as a tool to help them avoid taking a life.
It began when a woman, 57, left Cocoa Beach, Florida, drove all the way to Stafford County, Virginia, pulled into a Walmart parking lot, backed her sedan up against a 16-wheeler cab with a sleeping trucker inside, and took out a silver revolver. “She kept talking to herself, yelling profanities and enticing us to shoot her, over and over and over again,” a local police officer later told The Washington Post.
Its was an apparent attempt at “suicide by cop.”
Desperate people like the Florida woman, who was reportedly down to her last $14, decide to provoke their own death by waving a gun or knife at a police officer, knowing law enforcement is trained to shoot if they feel their life is threatened. Cops who shoot in such situations were manipulated into doing so, but that doesn’t spare them from feelings of trauma or guilt for taking a human life. Some recall doing so as the worst moment in their careers or even their lives.
Fortunately, the Florida woman was not killed:
Rather than rush into a situation where they might have to fire, Stafford officials turned to technology: Police pilots flew two drones to monitor the woman from a safe distance and avoid putting officers in a direct confrontation. The airborne cameras gave authorities a close-up view of her and what she had in her car as she flitted between pacing outside and ducking back into the vehicle.
Worcester could see the label on the vodka bottle she lifted to wash down pills. He could tell SWAT officers when she had her finger on the trigger of her gun. And he could watch as her agitation ebbed and flowed.
That information helped police to safely and successfully evacuate the trucker from his cab, and eventually, to get an armored vehicle close enough to fill the woman’s car with pepper spray, enabling officers to grab, disarm, and arrest her.
The approach was innovative in its particulars and consistent with the premises that police-reform advocates assert in attempts to reduce the number of unjust or unnecessary killings. Among them: that whether someone lives or dies at the hand of a police officer often turns not on the last moment of an encounter, but whether officers are trained in deescalation and taught to avoid getting themselves into situations where using lethal force seems like their only option.
At times, it is the only option.
In this case, few would’ve questioned the use of lethal force had cops approached, reacted to the weapon, and shot to kill—yet there was, in fact, a better way. And it’s easy to think of other killings that might’ve been avoided with the same approach. Think of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was holding a pellet gun in a Cleveland park when local cops pulled up right next to him and shot almost immediately. If those police officers had the same tools at their disposal and the same tactical inclinations, Rice would likely still be alive today.
Of course, a tool’s proliferation can lead to new kinds of abuses if proper limits are not imposed. Police drones can be so useful in cases like the one in Virginia “precisely because they're so good at gathering information on individuals' behavior,” Alec Ward writes at Reason. “The deputies in Stafford County evidently felt comfortable attempting de-escalation because, using drones, they could watch the woman so closely they felt they could essentially read her mind. That's an extraordinary capability that could be misused in all sorts of less benign contexts.”
He doesn’t want to ban police drones.
“But the public should not take it on faith that police will use drones only in benevolent ways,” he correctly advises. “Luckily, there's a fairly simple way out of the conundrum: preemptive restriction. If the residents of Stafford County want their police officers to use drones to help contain unstable armed people, but not, say, to enforce speed limits or search private lands for marijuana, they can push their elected lawmakers to write such guidelines into applicable laws.”
Meanwhile, the public should recognize that technology is changing police work in ways that are analogous to changes that the military has already experienced. Traditionally, cops are praised most vociferously for exhibitions of physical courage. Now that drones and other technology are available, however, lots of situations, including standoffs, can unfold in ways that reduce the need for courage, the threat to police, and the number of situations where lethal force is used.
The public can encourage police officers to exploit better approaches by praising innovative tactics that spare a life as enthusiastically as acts of physical heroism. In that spirit, three cheers for the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office.
They protected and served.