The cops are at it again. Police in Chicago have been secretly testing a full drone program by using untraceable cash taken during drug raids, according to a report from the Chicago Sun-Times (h/t Gizmodo). That doesn’t seem sketchy at all.
The Sun-Times was privy to an email sent by Karen Conway, Chicago PD’s director of police research and development, last summer (the emails leaked as part of a huge hack last month). Conway says explicitly in the email that the department’s counter-terrorism bureau “utilized 1505 funds for a pilot Drone program that operates within the parameters of current laws.”
Those 1505 funds are forfeiture proceeds: assets seized during criminal investigations. As such, that cash is not included in the police department’s official budget and is, for all intents and purposes, untraceable. Unless you’re willing to put that information in an email, apparently.
The Chicago Police Department has a long history of uncouth law enforcement practices, so it’s not exactly shocking that it’s going to such lengths again. Neither is it surprising that the department is reportedly showing little to no remorse about it.
Unabashed secrecy — The Chicago Police says its secret drone program was limited in use to take crime scene photos and work on terrorism-related investigations. These cases are both allowed by Chicago law, despite the city’s drone restrictions being generally tight.
And yet the department still hid its drone program, going as far as to use that off-the-books cash — at least $26,000 of it, according to the leaked emails.
When asked about the program, the Chicago Police told the Sun-Times that it investigates “every tool available when it comes to maintaining public safety and actively searches for innovative opportunities.” The department’s spokesperson did not explicitly mention drones.
More than a trend — The Illinois chapter of the ACLU is understandably concerned about the Chicago PD’s under-the-table drone dealings. A spokesperson for the chapter told the Sun-Times that the emails show Chicago “continues to pursue the invasive technologies without any public disclosure, oversight, or publicly adopted privacy policies.”
The real concern here is that, by using unofficial funds and not disclosing the program, the Chicago Police could easily use that technology for unsavory surveillance purposes. This is quickly becoming the norm in police departments across the United States. This pattern of investing in invasive technology would be terrifying enough; it’s made more so by the overwhelming secrecy with which police operate these programs. If you want to buy a few drones to take aerial crime scene photos, sure, go right ahead — but if that’s all you’re using the drones for, why hide it?
Maybe the Chicago PD will learn a useful lesson about transparency through this leak. But then again: even transparency, for police departments, isn’t always what it seems.