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This cybersecurity pro running for Philly City Council would introduce a drone force for policing

At-Large candidate Jalon Alexander is proposing that the PPD invest in a fleet of drones to patrol for crime. Yes, such tech is being used in other cities.

A drone in use. (Photo by Pexels user Pixabay, used under a Creative Commons license)
Would it ever feel normal to be walking down the street and know there is always a drone observing?

The latest would-be politician from a STEM background, City Council At-Large candidate Jalon Alexander, wants to see a fleet of drones assisting the Philadelphia Police Department, an idea he outlined in a proposal called Drone Force Philly.

The Democrat grew up in Strawberry Mansion, and went on to study security and intelligence studies at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Now, he’s a cybersecurity law pro who told Technical.ly he primarily works with federal government agencies; his LinkedIn says he’s currently a business development and capture manager with Virginia’s Makpar Corporation.

Crime is a top priority for voters ahead of the May primary. Per the City of Philadelphia Office of the Controller’s dashboard that tracks gun violence in Philadelphia, the city saw an increase in victims in 2020 and 2021 at the height of the pandemic, though those numbers started coming down in 2022. Alexander came up with the idea for Drone Force Philly because he wanted to “study an effective way to curb gun violence and reduce racial tensions between communities and police officers” using technology, he said in a February interview.

In response to two recent shooting incidents this past week in which the shooter was not arrested, Alexander tweeted this statement urging local government to seriously consider his proposal:

The candidate believes the City shouldn’t want to over-police areas with officers, and could save money by investing in tech: “Technology gives us a way to police safer, more efficiently in a way that is less racially biased,” he said.

Alexander’s plan proposes getting two drones for each of Philadelphia’s 21 police districts. One of the drones would be actively patrolling the district and alert the police if it sees crime, then someone in the police unit would actively monitor the drone and communicate what the drone is seeing to police officers headed to a crime scene. He also proposed hiring a team of 10 people to manage the drones and address any technology issues they face.

Along the lines of easing tensions between police officers and residents, Alexander claims “drones see crime, they don’t see color.” However, the broader field of artificial intelligence-driven facial recognition technology, which is commonly used as a tool in policing, has been criticized for its harm to marginalized communities. He thinks this issue can be addressed by hiring diverse contractors to provide drones and work on the drone force.

“These biases are less likely to occur if some of the individuals working on the software [and] some individuals involved in the contracting process are people that are susceptible to that bias,” Alexander said. “You’ve got bias in AI when you have a lack of diversity in all sectors. … We can always improve and make software better. Software is a consistently evolving thing.”

Jalon Alexander in front of a blue background.

Jalon Alexander. (Courtesy photo)

Drones have been used in other US cities as a support system to law enforcement by way of helping to find missing persons, fighting wildfires and providing information to cops during car chases. Los Angeles made drones a permanent part of its police force in 2019, and has since used drones by sending them to crime scenes ahead of officers and observing traffic stops.

“It allows people to be proactive and not reactive and to obtain more information to make individuals safer,” Alexander said.

Could such a proposal succeed in Philadelphia? Time will tell. Before announcing the idea of Drone Force Philly, the candidate said, he spoke with people from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration about his idea, as well as with police officers about the idea, although he didn’t speak with any Philadelphia officers, specifically. The PPD confirmed to Technical.ly that it currently uses drones, but did not provide more details.

Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2024 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: City of Philadelphia / Philadelphia Police Department

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