Richland County Sheriff’s Department got back to Free Times after press time Tuesday to weigh in on state legislation that would restrict the use of drones by state and local law enforcement, expressing grave concerns about House Bill 3514.
“It’s taking a burdensome and restrictive stance toward law enforcement,” Capt. Chris Cowan says.
The position is at odds with other law enforcement, who took more moderate views of the bill in a story that appears in today’s print edition of the paper.
Cowan says a major concern is that the legislation causes confusion by conflating drones with remote-controlled helicopters.
“’Drone’ denotes military equipment. We’re using radio-controlled helicopters,” Cowan says, adding that the difference lies in their capabilities. Drones can range further, higher and stay in the air longer.
Cowan says 90 percent of RCSD’s camera ‘copter’s airtime is devoted to community policing, which he defined as outreach and education programs for youths and communities.
The other 10 percent, he says, is for situations when an eye-in-the-sky could reduce risk to officers and citizens, like a recent bank robbery on Two Notch Road in which suspects fled on foot into some nearby woods.
H.3514, which cleared the S.C. House unanimously and now awaits further debate in the Senate Judiciary Committee, would prohibit the use of drones for gathering evidence without a judge’s search warrant, except in cases of extreme risk to public safety.
Cowan says RCSD’s camera ‘copter abides by the same laws and regulations that apply to law enforcement’s traditional use of planes and helicopters. He says it has never been deployed in a situation that would require a search warrant.
Conservative Republicans in both the House and Senate have introduced similar anti-drone legislation.