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Florida Cops Used Drones to Foil a Suicide Attempt

Cop tech can facilitate better policing, but it urgently needs more oversight.

pixabaypixabayA suicidal Florida woman armed herself with a revolver and took to the roads in December, intending to provoke police into killing her, reports the Washington Post. With the help of two camera drones, though, local police foiled her plan, raising the possibility of a new use for the devices not yet widely contemplated: de-escalation.

It's both unclear and hotly contested just how common such "suicide by cop" attempts are, but anecdotes like the one from Florida are common enough that it's reasonable to suspect that they account for a significant portion of the hundreds of people fatally shot by police every year. Just yesterday, a woman armed with a pistol was shot by police in Laguna Beach, California, after reportedly making suicidal statements.

But the Florida woman's story ended differently. A pair of camera drones monitored the woman during a four-hour standoff in which she repeatedly pointed the gun at officers and at least one civilian, demanding that police kill her. Using them, officers could see the woman consuming vodka and pills, and they could see when her finger was and wasn't placed on the revolver's trigger. Despite the woman's actions, therefore, it was never deemed necessary to fire on her.

In the end, the woman was taken into custody by a SWAT team, which used less-lethal "beanbag" rounds, pepper spray, and an armored vehicle to approach the car and subdue the woman.

Given the circumstances, that's a remarkable outcome. Most American officers are trained to shoot if a suspect tries to point a gun at them, and the law considers such shootings justified.

The Florida story suggests that new notions about policing and force, advanced by reform groups like the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), may be beginning to have an effect. A growing number of officers are being trained in "de-escalation" techniques which instruct officers to slow down, back off, and try to wait out potentially violent individuals.

The use of camera drones to facilitate de-escalation adds an interesting wrinkle to what is otherwise a straightforwardly positive development for civil libertarians.

On one hand, the drones in Stafford County certainly seem to have helped overcome one of the downsides of the de-escalation tactics groups like PERF advocate: the large number of officers they require to contain and monitor an armed suspect. Their use therefore might assist the proliferation of such tactics, and thus help shrink the annual number of police-involved shootings.

On the other hand, cop-drones have this effect precisely because they're so good at gathering information on individuals' behavior. 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.

Given the camera drones' ability to facilitate de-escalation, it's hard to argue that cops should be banned from using them entirely. But the public should not take it on faith that police will use drones only in benevolent ways.

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.

It's long past time for these conversations to happen. As the incident in Florida shows, police are already deciding for themselves how they want to use this technology. They shouldn't be doing so without approval from the communities they're supposed to serve.

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  • ||

    Kudos to the police for their restraint.

    De-escalation tactics, however, have always been available to cops. Getting a new toy isn't going to cause police to suddenly re-evaluate the low priority they seem to place on de-escalation.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Yes, but this case could be taken to indicate that minimizing the physical involvement of human police officers has a de-escalatory effect all by itself

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    So, replace the cops with robots. I like your thinking.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Someone hasn't seen the latest season of Black Mirror.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I'm still working my way through the paperback version of RoboCop.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    You know, Metalhead was probably the worst episode.

  • This Machine Chips Fascists||

    Resistance is futile.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    "Florida woman..."

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Police should only be allowed to carry beanbag rounds and other non-lethal weapons. Don't tell me we can't figure out how to bring down a suspect without killing him or her.

  • ||

    Don't tell me we can't figure out how to bring down a suspect without killing him or her.

    You've got it backwards. Cops routinely bring people down without killing them. The problem is, we haven't yet invented a non-lethal technology that actually *prevents* officers from killing people.

  • This Machine Chips Fascists||

    Ya think cops ever ponder why so many people view them as a good option for suicide? Just a flicker of awareness?

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Despite the woman's actions, therefore, it was never deemed necessary to fire on her.

    They must have beaten the hell out of the drones once they recovered them.

  • Hugh Akston||

    They probably stopped off at a dog shelter on the way back to the station.

  • DajjaI||

    Eventually the world will consist entirely of a group of people trying to kill themselves and another group chasing them trying to stop it and me - working my ass off to pay for all your nonsense.

  • This Machine Chips Fascists||

    I predict a world covered in national cemeteries and presidential libraries. Let's make a movie.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Good on the cops for not shooting this woman.

    Instances like this are one more reason that painless foolproof suicide kits should be available OTC, or at the very least administered by a healthcare professional.

  • StackOfCoins||

    Robots really should be the first line of policing, if for no other reason than they cannot panic. Humanoid robots are decades away, but we already have autonomous cars, so start there. Empty half the patrol cars, tint the windows, and let it roll around on it's own. If their main purpose on the streets is to instill fear in criminals, past and future, then there is no need for a human in the seat earning an absurd salary to drive around all day.

  • ||

    Along the same lines, how many drones and hours are appropriate for attempted-suicide situations? Cops get perks and earn pensions, nominally because they're in harms way. Once they're manning drones, watching people threaten to take their own lives shift, after shift, after shift, do we get a discount?

    Once a news organization figures out how to embed their cameras on one of these drones, I strongly suspect their popularity to plummet, for several reasons.

  • StackOfCoins||

    Cops get perks and earn pensions, nominally because they're in harms way.
    Teachers get them too, and school shootings notwithstanding being a public school teacher is not a hazardous job.

    Even if we shift a large percentage of cops to drone-operators, they will get all the same benefits with no regard to cost or danger. Their role as "public servants" will ensure the gravy train keeps rolling. The only upshot I see is removing violent power from individual cops by putting them into purely a surveillance role (for now, until they weaponize them).

  • Michael Cook||

    This incident had a good outcome, but it reveals the gap in resources between prosperous, populated cosmopolitan/suburban areas and more rural areas of the country. Believe it or not, the majority of small towns do not even have a SWAT team. Once they call in all the officers who worked other shifts and are supposed to be sleeping, they beg for reinforcements from neighboring jurisdictions and the state highway patrols.

    In many states, back-up like that is hours away. I have long been a fan of bean bags or rubber bullets, but beyond 20 yards hits with those are problematic and often even square hits are ineffective.

    A person who is waving around what appears to be a firearm who is 60 feet away can charge you and take a shot in a surprisingly short elapsed time. Intoxication or incapacitation can be feigned. If they are brandishing a long gun officers could be at extreme risk at a thousand feet, or two thousand with scoped weapons.

    Now a drone that shoot potent tranquilizer darts, drops pepper or tear gas grenades, etc. would be nice. Or a rolling robot that can approach a subject and shoot out a sticky net. Really ideal are microwave or sonic dish antennas that radiate with painful energy and really discourage someone running at them. These, unfortunately, are pricey and rare.

  • StackOfCoins||

    Now a drone that shoot potent tranquilizer darts, drops pepper or tear gas grenades, etc. would be nice. Or a rolling robot that can approach a subject and shoot out a sticky net. Really ideal are microwave or sonic dish antennas that radiate with painful energy and really discourage someone running at them. These, unfortunately, are pricey and rare.

    Sounds like my kind of dystopia: futuristic and statist.

    The greatest threat to liberty is probably making drones potent weapon platforms. Those klutzes who call them police do not need advanced war devices.

  • ohdelilah||

    Well, the question is, do we pay the police to protect us or to protect themselves?

  • BYODB||

    The cops only let a person live when that person goes so far out of their way to create a spectacle that just popping one off into their skull would be a P.R. nightmare. That's how you explain a story like this.

  • buybuydandavis||

    " raising the possibility of a new use for the devices not yet widely contemplated: de-escalation."

    This was always obvious. Cops should have little robots with cameras and display screens so that they can move themselves out of perceived danger while still communicating with someone.

    If the problem is perceived threat to the cop, don't kill people, get the cop out of danger.

    I remember that story where a woman called the cops about a some guy, I don't know if boyfriend or son, who was in his room with a knife, and she feared he was suicidal.

    So the cops come, break down the door, and kill the guy because he has a knife and they felt threatened. It's a Monty Python skit.

  • ohdelilah||

    Well,let's all give a big round of applause to the brave police officers who, for once, didn't "deem it necessary" to shoot first and ask questions later. Obviously I've chosen the wrong profession; all I get for doing my job every day is a paycheck.

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