We deserve answers on drones

The latest law enforcement toy craze is sweeping the nation, and our own Sheriff Jerry Demings was all too eager to join the fad and buy a pair of drones.

He hasn't been so keen on answering serious questions about the camera-equipped mini-helicopters he plans to fly over Orange County skies.

Questions like: "What do you plan to use these for, sheriff?"

So law-abiding residents are left to wonder: Could my property be searched and photographed from the sky without a search warrant? Could my whereabouts be tracked for no good reason other than the sheriff wants to test drive his new toy? Should backyard sunbathers beware?

Official secrecy can scare the living daylights out of people. And gives credence to fears that would otherwise sound paranoid.

"There's nothing for us to hide here," said Demings' spokesman, Jeff Williamson. "We're in the early stages of seeing what these things are and considerations of privacy ... Let's just see what they can do first then we'll start deciding what we can do about it."

Forgive me. I was foolish enough to think that would have been part of the vetting process before Demings signed off on spending up to $50,000 in grant money on the tiny helicopters known as the Draganflyer X6.

Williamson says Demings will finally answer questions about the drones at a press event on Friday, six days after the Sentinel first reported their existence.

The first question should be how he's going to assure people that the drones won't be misused.

There may be perfectly good uses for these flying eyes such as searching for a missing person or surveying an area contaminated by hazardous chemicals.

But what about the potential for abuse?

The sheriff's evasiveness is why we should thank a state senator who is trying to ensure that doesn't happen. (It's nice to see a lawmaker remember that the Bill of Rights isn't just the Second Amendment.)

Joe Negron, a Republican from Stuart, is pushing a bill that would help protect our Fourth Amendment rights — protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The bill (SB 92) allows law enforcement use of drones with permission from a judge and a search warrant or in the event of a terrorist threat or "exigent circumstances."

Seems like there's plenty of room for interpretation in that last one, another reason why police agencies that buy this technology must be upfront about how they intend to use it.

We already live in an age where privacy is being assaulted on all fronts. Web sites track everything from our music preferences to how often we order medications.

It's no wonder we get wiggly when the local sheriff buys a couple of devices manufactured for high-tech spying.

The Draganflyer's camera delivers "razor sharp real time video" and the remote-controlled copter is light enough to be lifted with one hand and launched on a moment's notice, says the manufacturer's description.

No denying this is one cool gadget.

Which is why I can't help but recall another sheriff with a fondness for toys.

Former Sheriff Kevin Beary's purchases included so-called "elephant guns," an M16 converter used to take out the occasional cow that wanders into traffic; and an armored truck with a price tag in the six figures.

Could this be the latest doohickey that pads the sheriff's arsenal, but doesn't see much action? The Polk County sheriff already decided to give back the drones he had on loan because they weren't worth buying. And Miami police own some, but haven't even had occasion to use them.

My guess is Orange County won't either. But before we find out, the sheriff owes everyone an explanation about what he has in mind.

bkassab@tribune.com or 407-420-5448