Richland County RC helicopter rankles civil libertarians - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina |

Richland County RC helicopter rankles civil libertarians

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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) -

It was a bank robbery straight out of the movies. Four masked, heavily armed men opening fire inside and outside a Wells Fargo branch on Two Notch Road last November.

It brought a swarm of Richland County officers to the area. As they searched for the suspects, bystanders could see and hear one of the police helicopters overhead.

What most may not have seen was a much smaller, quieter aircraft: a battery-powered, remote controlled, video-equipped mini-chopper.

It's compact enough to fit in a car trunk but definitely not a toy.

"We had suspects going behind a house and which we couldn't clear until we had the real helicopter and the special response team respond, so we actually deployed this and checked the rear of the residence before the deputies actually responded," said Deputy Marcus Kim, the helicopter's pilot.

Kim also helped modify it for surveillance use and is considered one of law enforcement's best operators.

"When we need something quick and fast, we can deploy this," said Kim. "I can get on scene quicker than the actual, the real helicopter that we have. We can deploy this a lot quicker and we can actually see basically the exact same thing a real helicopter can see from there."

And Kim can see a lot. Wearing a special pair of goggles, he can watch live video of anything in range of the copter's nose-mounted camera, which worries civil libertarians.

Victoria Middleton is Executive Director of the South Carolina ACLU chapter. She and the national organization say cameras that can travel almost anywhere raise serious questions about privacy and constitutional rights.

"We're very concerned about them potentially being used for mass surveillance of the vast majority of law-abiding citizens," said Middleton.

"I mean there's no question that it can serve a useful purpose in search and rescue, in fire safety situations, in pursuing criminals and resolving crimes," continued Middleton. "We're just very concerned about invading people's privacy. We're concerned about surveilling certain communities because it can be that communities of color or other certain neighborhoods come in for more surveillance than others."

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott has heard comments like those since his department got the RC helicopter more than two years ago.

"We're going after those people who are breaking the law," said Lott. "And that's what it's going to be used for. It's going to be used to save people's lives. It's going to be used to arrest bad guys. That's what we're going to use it for. We're not going to be peeking into anybody's windows, seeing what they're doing. Or behind closed doors. That's not what it's designed for."

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