There’s a new sheriff on the high plains. Or rather, just above them.
North Dakota’s police agencies can fly drones armed with Tasers, tear gas, bean-bag cannons, and other “less-lethal” weapons, thanks to fierce lobbying from the law enforcement industry on a bill that was initially meant to restrict police use of the flying robots rather than outfit them with weapons. While other local police departments have flirted with weaponizing their drones, North Dakota is the first state to explicitly allow the armaments.
When State Rep. Rick Becker introduced H.B. 1328, the law both banned weaponized drones and established a procedure for law enforcement to seek a warrant before using drones in searches. Only the warrant requirement survived. After stiff lobbying and a multi-stage public relations effort by law enforcement and drone proponents, first reported by The Daily Beast, the version of the bill that ultimately passed authorized police to arm their unmanned aerial vehicles with sound cannons, pepper spray, and other weapons not designed to kill.
The weaponization of law enforcement drones could facilitate police abuse of force. Military drone pilots can develop a “Playstation mentality” toward their deadly work, according to United Nations official. The physical remove of a drone pilot desensitizes him, the thinking goes, and makes it easier to be rash about deploying his armaments. Pilots themselves contest this desensitization claim, however, and there’s reason to think military drone operators experience post-traumatic stress disorder despite sitting far from the battlefield.
Police drones won’t have Hellfire missiles, of course. But the weapons North Dakota’s law enforcement drones are authorized to use under state law are still capable of causing serious injury and death. 39 people have been killed by police Tasers in 2015 thusfar, according to The Guardian. Rubber bullets can kill, and most non-lethal weapons can inflict grievous and lasting harm.
Law enforcement operations are already monitoring civil rights activists affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, using a combination of undercover officers, social media snooping, and cell phone monitoring technology called Stingray. An FBI-provided aerial surveillance plane was also on hand during the unrest in Baltimore following the killing of Freddie Gray by police. Should drones equipped with remote-controlled Tasers and tear gas come into wider use, it seems likely they’d be incorporated into crowd control and demonstration monitoring efforts. In such uses, officers far from the scene of unrest could make bloodless decisions about how to deploy drone weaponry, potentially escalating tense situations.
Prior to the law enabling North Dakota cops to mount weapons on their remote-controlled flying machines, the state’s police drones had drawn press coverage for more straightforward uses. Last fall, the Grand Forks police department used a drone to catch a group of drunk driving suspects who had attempted to hide in a cornfield. A surveillance flyover helped end a standoff with an armed rancher and his sons in 2011, after SWAT officers had held off for 16 hours because they weren’t sure about the tactical situation inside the house. No warrant had been sought in that case, and it became a flashpoint for controversy over how to incorporate drone technology into the often-flawed compromise between Americans’ civil rights and law enforcement duties.
The American Civil Liberties Union argues that police drones are a new kind of threat to that compromise between security and liberty. The group supports laws to restrict law enforcement’s use of them, and makes a compelling case that absent such restraints the technology is fundamentally at odds with the Bill of Rights.