Many American policemen belong to the military reserve and many were mobilized for service in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. That helped the army a lot because these reservists were able to bring to the combat zone modern police tools and techniques that were very useful in dealing with Islamic terrorists. But the information flowed both ways and many of these mobilized police learned first-hand how useful UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), especially the most common one, the 2 kg (4.4 pound) Raven, can be. Most of the 17,000 police departments in the United States do not have any helicopters or easy access to one from private or government sources. So these small UAVs have a growing appeal. But fears of aerial accidents and intrusive police surveillance have so far prevented widespread legal use of police UAVs.
This state of affairs is not popular with most police because all police can use some air support and inexpensive and easy to use UAVs like Raven are the only way most police forces are going to get it. While many oppose this because of fears of police violating privacy, it ignores the fact that helicopters and fixed wing aircraft have been used by police for decades without any privacy problems. Moreover, most police time is not spent on criminal investigations (stake outs and following people around) but on more mundane matters like traffic control, gathering evidence at the scene of traffic accidents, searching for missing children, and dealing with natural or manmade disasters. The public appreciates the presence of aircraft during these situations and if Ravens (and similar small UAVs) were available the public attitude would quickly change. Media would have a new form of police misbehavior to watch out for, but civilians and criminals are already using UAVs illegally to snoop or plan new crimes. Meanwhile, the flight safety angle has already been proved false in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Raven class UAVs rarely collided with anything in the air and when they did manned aircraft often didn’t notice until they landed and someone spotted the dent or damage to the paint.
The army considers its thousands of Ravens so useful it is not giving any away now that the troops have returned. But commercial operations and some government agencies (forestry, agriculture, and natural resources in general) are finding more and more uses for UAVs and want to get laws changed to allow them to be more widely used. It’s the commercial pressure that is most likely to force changes in current laws, and once police can use them there will be popular opposition to reversing that situation.