On Wednesday September 21st, David Forkkio was taking a break from his downtown Harrisburg job sitting on the steps that lead into Susquehanna River as he was approached by two uniformed police officers to see if he fitted the description of a suspect in the area. As interaction between Forkkio and the police officers were going on, a police officer and a civilian were standing on the bike path that sits above the waterfront and at base of the Market Street Bridge operating a drone and recorded the event.
Two videos were uploaded to YouTube by Gordon Bennett, a local drone consultant, and both recordings document the whole event. The difference between the videos is the zoom of the camera and the timing. They begin with Forkkio sitting by himself on the waterfront steps and is approached by two police officers. A conversation between Forkkio and the police officers ensue, Forkkio hands some form of identification to the officers and then the officers leave. The video zooms out, scans the are and then show the police officers leaving the area. The shorter video cuts out after three minutes and twenty seconds, but the longer video shows the drone landing on bike path with two officers and drone operator in view. Screen captures from both videos show that one of the police officers asking Forkkio for his drivers license was one of the officers working with the drone consultant.
According to Forkkio, the police told him that he fit the description of suspect in the area and asked if his name was Tobias. The police wanted to know why he was sitting on the waterfront, where he worked and if there “was anyone else in the area.” Forkkio was not aware of the drone until the police the police approached him and said that he noticed the drone operator standing nearby. When the two videos were posted online Forkkio said that it “seem like it was just a test pitching the drones to the police,” and that he was “under the impression that there is no Tobias and they were testing it on a random black person.”
Last year, Mount Carmel Township’s police department became the state’s first department to have surveillance drones. The drone was purchased by a part time officer and then leased to the department for one dollar. The police department has confirmed that the drone has been used “several times” to search for suspects when they became operational a year ago.
The American Civil Liberties Union acknowledges that drones have beneficial uses when it comes to search and rescue missions, research and mapping, but organization does take a regulated approach on surveillance uses. The ACLU believes “uniform rules should be enacted to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a ‘surveillance society'” and their usage by law enforcement should be limited to when a warrant is present or in emergency situations.