Just Say No to the Police Using Drones

May 23, 2012 | Posted by Enrique

The militarization of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. has been a depressing trend for some time, putting America on a path toward becoming a fullblown police state so gradually, barely anyone even noticed. Although we already live in the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world, the U.S. is still nominally a free country in which law enforcement officers have to respect the rights of average citizens.

If law enforcement agencies expand their use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (i.e., drones), America will have reached a tipping point it might not be able to turn back from. But expanded use of drones by the police is exactly what might happen as a result of a provision in the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act passed earlier this year.

The story so far…

On Valentine’s Day, President Barack Obama showed the FAA how much he cares by providing over $63 billion to fund the agency through 2015. Apparently there had been some dispute with Republicans having to do with unions, which kept the FAA funded at 2007 levels and required temporary reauthorizations twice a year, blah blah blah…anyway it was kind of a broil, but it’s all worked out now and the agency is free to piddle away that $63 billion however it sees fit for the next few years. Maybe they’ll finally let travelers use their laptops during takeoff.

Although it was one of the few acts of Congress that doesn’t have an awkward forced acronym for a title, it does seem to contain some provisions with potentially regrettable consequences that no one considered at the time. One is the FAA is supposed to come up with regulations that make it easier for drones to be used by local law enforcement agencies. This appears to be yet another horrible idea whose time has come:

The Federal Aviation Administration on Monday began to explain the rules of the sky for these newly licensed drones at potentially dozens of sites across the country. The agency, on its website, said that government “entities” will have to obtain a special certificate in order to fly the aircraft, adding that the FAA is “streamlining the process for public agencies to safely fly (drones) in the nation’s airspace.”

Well, that’s comforting. Surely, if law enforcement is allowed to use drones, they will only employ them in situations involving dangerous individuals suspected of violent crimes.

Drones have already been employed domestically. In what was described as the first case where an unmanned drone was used to arrest an American citizen on U.S. soil, a North Dakota SWAT team reportedly borrowed a Department of Homeland Security drone to monitor Rodney Brossart — who was involved in a 16-hour standoff at his North Dakota farm over six cattle that had wandered onto his property and which he claimed as his own. The SWAT team apparently used the drone to make sure it was safe to arrest him, though his lawyer has since claimed Brossart was subjected to guerrilla-like police tactics and had his constitutional rights violated.

Christ, they already have drones in North Dakota? More to the point, they have SWAT teams in North Dakota? I had never heard of this Brossart fellow, but his case doesn’t appear to have been made up by Fox News – it’s been covered in HuffPo and UPI as well.

Looks trustworthy to me

At first blush, this Brossart situation appears to be exactly the kind of thing that happens when police militarization goes unchecked. If a North Dakota law enforcement agency has a SWAT team sitting around, it’s going to find a way to use it, and it’s not necessarily going to limit itself to potentially violent suspects. And if that agency has access to a drone, it’s going to find a way to use that as well, even if it’s just some silly disagreement over goddamned cattle.

In fairness, the UPI report portrays Brossart as a colorful fellow, who describes himself as an “anti-government ‘sovereignist'” and his family allegedly chased “chased police off his land with high-powered rifles.” So I suppose one could argue there might be more to his case than police going too far over a few cows – although I’d reserve judgment until all the facts are in. Brossart’s family alleges that police have had a vendetta against them for some time, and they did supposedly use a taser on him.

Even if it turns out Brossart family aren’t the victims they claim to be, it’s certainly not unheard of for police to use SWAT/military tactics for victimless or minor crimes like gambling, occupational license violations, copyright infringement, underage drinking, and of course drug possession. If drones are being used today to facilitate confrontations over the ownership of cows in the middle of nowhere, how long before they are used to catch people smoking weed in their backyards?

In addition to loaning them to North Dakota police, the Department of Homeland Security uses drones for border- and drug-war-related surveillance. New York City officials have reportedly expressed interest in using drones. The police chief of Fairfax County in Virginia has said drones “certainly have a purpose and a reason to be in this region in the coming years” for traffic control. I’m sure these guys mean well (they always mean well – is there anything more destructive than good intentions combined with limited accountability?), but what starts out as a handy tool for managing traffic can easily become a way to hassle people with unpopular lifestyles or personal habits.

That’s not to say drones might not be useful in the right hands, i.e., in the private sector. Drones can be used by the energy industry to monitor pipelines and oil rigs. The agriculture industry can use drones to gather data about crops. It’s easy to imagine media companies using drones to provide aerial coverage of events more cheaply than helicopters can.

Most importantly, drones in private hands can be used to monitor public officials. Last year in Poland, when police clashed with protesters during Independence Day demonstrations, an aerial drone recorded video of the incidents. In an era when many police officers prefer that you not record video of them while they execute their duties, drones offer another opportunity to hold them accountable.

In private hands, drones can be beneficial. In the hands of public officials, drones can only be misused. We have already established the precedent that an American citizen can be killed by a drone without due process. With that in mind, we should do everything our power to prevent the expanded use of drones by the public sector. As Charles Krauthammer recommends, the best course of action would be to ban the domestic use of drones by the government altogether.


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