Police Use of Drones Is Guaranteed to Have Costly Consequences


Drone technology has gone from a novelty of war overseas to a part of an increasingly militarized domestic police toolbelt, and the fear of mission creep is growing. The unmanned machines cleared a number of major regulatory hurdles October 25, when President Donald Trump signed an executive order ordering federal agencies to launch a pilot program examining the loosening of restrictions on flight height, battery power and nighttime operations for private drone use. 

The use of weaponized drones and drones used for domestic surveillance operations by law enforcement is the clearest example of the potential for unintended consequences in the domestic use of the machines. Those opposed see drone use as part of the broader threat of governmental overreach moving forward. "Ultimately, they're not operating in isolation," said Hamid Khan, an organizer with activist group Stop LAPD Spying.

The LAPD is about to launch two small unarmed aerial systems as part of a pilot program assessing the usefulness of drones in law enforcement. For Stop LAPD Spying, the LAPD's history and the 2017 social climate makes drone technology a dangerous proposition for the department. "One of the biggest problems is that in this current political moment, police are encouraged to be much more aggressive in their actions," Khan said. "And there's been a failure to hold them accountable."

When contacted for this story, the LAPD directed AlterNet to a podcast, hosted on Soundcloud, created by the department's public relations office. In the episode, Assistant Chief Beatrice Girmala promised to use the drones only for hostage situations, disasters and similar extreme circumstances, and said the department would guard against the potential for the machines to go beyond those approved uses.

"The chief was very clear that we would not be just generalists with regard to this technology," Girmala told department public relations officer Josh Rubenstein, "so that the public could believe there would be no mission creep aspect to this."

The department may use Predator drones for the city's skies. The device, which the military uses for surveillance and assassinations, was offered to the department by its manufacturer General Atomics, which is headquartered in nearby San Diego County. The high-powered drones, which are used by the U.S. military to kill suspected militants overseas, have serious tactical capabilities. Predator drones can stay in the air for over 12 hours, are armed with missiles and have camera capabilities to use facial recognition technology from miles up in the air.

While the devices aren't expected to carry the same missiles they do overseas, the LAPD's use of helicopters to kill suspects already makes any higher capabilities more terrifying to those who oppose a militarized police. "The department already has one of the largest helicopter fleets in the country," said Khan said. "People are shot and killed from high-powered rifles."

Khan believes it's inevitable that the department will use the machines for surveillance and that the drones will be armed in the future. "They're claiming that by creating these guidelines, drones may not be on missions to surveil people at first," said Khan, "but mission creep is real, and that is eventually going to happen."

He shares his fear of mission creep with North Dakota state Rep. Rick Becker, a Republican, who has introduced legislation in three consecutive sessions to strip law enforcement drones of all weapons. Currently, drones operated by state and local police departments are permitted by law to be equipped with non-lethal weapons—the result of a compromise with the legislature. Another attempt by Becker to remove weapons from law enforcement drones was defeated earlier this year. The representative isn't feeling defeatist, though.

"The options are either no drones or a clear line between what's appropriate and what's not appropriate," Becker told AlterNet. "I don't think it's reasonable to say no drones — we're talking about an unmanned vehicle. That's the future, that's going to happen."

According to Becker, North Dakota is technically the only state in the nation where outfitting law enforcement drones with lethal weapons is statutorily illegal — the legislation allowing only non-lethal weapons is technically the only such restriction in the country. But Becker's concerns about the machines are more than just the immediacy of North Dakota law enforcement. "Mission creep has to be guarded against everywhere with government," said Becker. "It's the nature of government; it has to be anticipated."

Becker has an ally in the local American Civil Liberties Union, which is firmly opposed to arming law enforcement drones. ACLU North Dakota policy director Jennifer Cook told AlterNet that when the organization heard testimony on Becker's amendment in 2013 to strip weapons from the machines, lawmakers argued that if police departments did not intend to use lethal force from drones there was no need to pass legislation against non-lethal weapons on drones. "Use of non-lethal force is in and of itself not a good policy," Cook said.

North Dakota was the site of last year's hard-fought Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline that cut through sacred Native American land. The ensuing struggle over the pipeline's path drew national attention over the reaction of law enforcement and the sometimes brutal tactics employed to move protesters out of the path of construction. The Intercept reported in September that police used drones to surveil and identify protesters. Becker said he understood why police used drones at the protests.

"Technically, the protesters at DAPL were breaking the law, but the use wasn't surveillance," Becker said. "I support the use of drones to monitor situations where there's law-breaking."

For Hamid Khan, that situation is indicative of the potential for misuse of drones when they're in the hands of law enforcement. Flying drones overhead at a protest is meant to intimidate, harass and silence dissent, Khan explained, adding that the issue goes to the heart of people's rights to assemble and protest. "We can't forget how intimidating the presence of a drone is," Khan said, "the chilling effect it can have on people."

David McGuire, the executive director of ACLU Connecticut, said the potential for law enforcement using drones for crowd control was a clear intimidation tactic and could have a ripple effect into the realm of unintended consequences. Not only would people be less likely to go to a protest, McGuire said, but those who did would be subject to having their pictures taken by the high-powered cameras deployed by modern drones, and those pictures could then be run through facial recognition technology. "It's another worrying thing to think about in regard to mission creep," McGuire said.

Connecticut toyed with the idea of arming law enforcement drones with lethal weapons. However, the state's legislature killed the idea — law enforcement drones with weapons were an exception in the broader context of the bill, which hoped to make all weaponized drones illegal. A study on the feasibility of weaponized drones for law enforcement, including the potential ramifications for civil liberties, was also defeated in committee. Meanwhile, the Connecticut ACLU has pushed for more regulations on the devices' use by police departments in the state. "Do drones have a place in the public safety arsenal?" McGuire said. "Yes. But they need tight regulations."

Khan told AlterNet that regulations would need to be strict and aggressively applied to work, and that simply putting constraints on the use of drones is an insufficient solution to the broader issues at hand. The technological advances that lead to drones having the ability to spy on people and be outfitted with weapons don't happen in isolation, Khan said, and the pace at which information is processed and collected is speeding up. "Once surveillance is happening, drones may not have to be outfitted with weapons," Khan said. "Once you're surveilled, you all become moving targets for harm."

Drones targeting civilians, whether by surveillance or with weapons, is a real concern, said ACLU Connecticut's McGuire. Taser and traffic data collected on Connecticut police behavior show that law enforcement officers in the state disproportionately pull over people of color. "Weapons on drones would exacerbate this real problem," said McGuire. Cook, from ACLU North Dakota, agreed. "Mission creep is always a concern with drones," she said.

Khan and his organization are working to stop the LAPD pilot program and claim to have the majority of Angelenos on their side. Stop LAPD Spying is demanding a meeting with Mayor Eric Garcetti and requesting the city council stop the police from using the machines. It's an uphill struggle, and Khan knows it. But he's optimistic that change can occur at the local level, and that the change can have a positive ripple effect. "I strongly believe in power of the people," Khan told AlterNet. "This is an ongoing fight in the bigger picture."

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