State Police Increasingly Turn to Drones to Monitor U.S. Citizens

Drones quickly became the United States’ worst kept secret in 2011. From killing Anwar al-Awlaki to crashing in Iran, the use of drones has gotten more attention this past year than ever before. The use of drones in the U.S. itself, however, has received considerably less coverage. This year will prove to be a coming out party for the domestic drone. If used responsibly while remaining fully aware of potential dangers, drones could revolutionize law enforcement in the United States.

In June 2011, a sheriff in North Dakota was searching for six missing cows that were stolen. Three armed men chased the sheriff off the farm and called for the usual reinforcements in the case of an armed standoff. The difference in this situation was that a Customs and Border Patrol Predator B drone was called away from the Canadian border and aided law enforcement in arresting the three suspects.

According to the Los Angeles Times, this was the first known arrest of U.S. citizens using Predator drones on our soil. No shots were fired, a cache of weapons and the missing cows were found, and three alleged members of the Sovereign Citizens Movement were arrested. The drones at the border are primarily used for tracking illegal activity, but the 2005 bill that authorized these drones allowed them to work within “interior law enforcement support.” That small loophole may open up a can of worms as law enforcement eyes the benefits of having unmanned vehicles carry out dangerous surveillance tasks.

Drones will take significant danger away from law enforcement officials who put their lives at risk every day. Last year, a helicopter had to make an emergency landing during surveillance in Los Angeles when it was shot at. Perhaps the greatest benefit of drones in the eye of law enforcement officials is the cost benefit. Drones themselves are much cheaper than helicopters or other aircraft — and they cost much less to operate per hour than do other aircraft. Unmanned aircraft will make certain activities easier, safer, more efficient, and more cost effective. At a time when many states are saddled with enormous debt, it is clear this will be a big selling point.

This demand will likely lead the Federal Aviation Administration to review requests for unmanned vehicles for law enforcement purposes in 2012. Civil liberties experts have brought their concerns over privacy to the forefront of this debate. Although law enforcement reassures the public that these will be used where there is an ongoing police scene (Miami-Dade police have had two aircraft for seven months that they have yet to use), citizens are concerned they will be used to pry into their everyday lives.

Drones will get their first big time test monitoring crowds at the London Olympics this summer. In a city already laden with cameras, the police are looking for more “eyes in the sky.” Any police force that wishes to use these drones will have to cooperate with Civilian Aviation Authority, but the Metropolitan police have been reluctant to comment on the use of these drones.

It is clear that drones are useful for surveillance and law enforcement while creating significant concerns over privacy rights. However, we should look to the future, at how these vehicles may be used as their technology increases. A Wired article draws attention to the technological leaps that are possible when this technology is deployed for everyday use. Although it sounds like something from a Batman movie, these drones could be equipped with LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) known colloquially as a sound cannon. Unmanned vehicles could also be equipped with a “light based personnel immobilization device,” a strobe-like light used to disorient fleeing criminals and stop them in their tracks. It is even suggested that non-lethal rounds, or Tasers, could be mounted to these smaller drones to track down dangerous criminals.

In the face of ongoing protests throughout the world that shook many dictatorships in 2011, this technology will be more sought after than ever. Sound cannons used to dispel protesters could be flown in from a remote location, avoiding any clashes with the police or army. Drones are likely to be a fixture of our future in society; a tool that has to be used with caution and care no matter how impressive these advancements may be.

Photo Credit: drsmith7383

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Therese Postel

Therese earned a Masters of Arts in International Affairs from The Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy (The New School). She is a Policy Associate at The Century Foundation and continues learning Arabic.

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