via Popular Science. May 30:
For the First Time, Predator Drones Participate in Civilian Arrests on U.S. Soil
A somewhat strange story emerged yesterday involving an extremist antigovernment group, a North Dakota sheriff’s office, and six missing cows, but there’s a much larger story behind this brief legal tangle between local law enforcement and the Brossart family of Nelson Country. When Alex, Thomas and Jacob Brossart were arrested on their farm back in June after allegedly chasing the local Sheriff off their property with rifles, they became the first known U.S. citizens to be arrested on American soil with the help of a Predator drone, Stars and Stripes reports.
They will not, however, be the last. Most U.S. citizens are aware that US. Customs and Border Protection owns and operates a handful of aerial drones along the nation’s northern and southern borders (eight Predators to be exact), but when Congress authorized the use of drones along the borders in 2005 it was thought that they would be used strictly to curb illegal immigration and to detect smuggling routes.
But a provision allowing for “interior law enforcement support” is being given fairly liberal interpretation by both the Customs and Border Protection crews that operate the drones and local law enforcement that sometimes wants to borrow CBP’s aerial assets. Local police in North Dakota say they’ve called upon the two Predators operating out of Grand Forks Air Force Base at least two dozen times since June.
These drones are unarmed Predator B drones (known as MQ-9 Reapers elsewhere in the operational lingo), the same “hunter/killer” model employed across the globe in the War on Terror (but without the Hellfire missiles). They are being used for surveillance and situational awareness only, law enforcement officials say. But the fact that they’re being used at all–and especially without anyone higher up the chain of command acknowledging that local police have access to and are using Predator drones routinely–stirs up all kinds of privacy issues. As Stripes notes, it also skirts the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the U.S. military from taking on a police role within the United States.
In the case of the Brossart boys, apparently the sheriff showed up on their place with search warrant in hand seeking access to the family’s land to search for six missing cows thought to be on the premises. The Brossarts–who reportedly are not huge fans of the federal government in general and belong to an antigovernment group that the FBI considers extremist–brandished rifles and allegedly ordered the sheriff off the property. The sheriff complied, but then asked for support from the nearby drone unit, which happened to have a Predator in the air returning from a routine recon of the U.S.-Canada border.
Local law used the drone to keep an eye on the Brossart place overnight and the next day were able to determine via the drone footage that the three Brossarts in question were out on the property and unarmed (there’s a more thorough account of this if you click through to the Stripes piece). All said, the local police were able to sweep in and arrest the Brossarts without firing a shot or ending up in some kind of armed standoff.
To local law enforcement, it’s a good story about technology working to avoid violent confrontations and assist cops in their day-to-day serving and protecting. But it’s also troubling. From a privacy standpoint, the use of military surveillance drones over American cities is fraught with issues. Then there’s the fact that–up until now–very few people seem to have any idea this is going on. The government peering into your backyard, Big Brother is watching, etc. etc.–it’s the kind of thing that’s going to have to be talked about as technologies like drone aircraft become more ubiquitous, both abroad and at home.
Oh, and the six cows were located by police. No word on whether the Predators were scrambled for that part of the operation.
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Seattle pigs have drones too. – A
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Seattle Times. May 2:
Police apologize for not keeping council in loop on new drones
An assistant Seattle police chief apologized to City Council members Wednesday for not keeping them informed about the department’s plans to use aerial drones.
City leaders and the public were caught by surprise last week when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington raised questions about the department’s planned use of two unmanned aerial vehicles it received in 2010 under a federal homeland-security grant.
Police have been training to operate the drones, but no policies have yet been drafted to guide their use. Police say the drones won’t be deployed until those policies are in place within the next few months.
“We probably could have done a better job in communicating to the city. I apologize for that,” Paul McDonagh, assistant chief for operations, told the City Council Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee at a hearing.
The drones can hold cameras to take pictures or video or be equipped with sensors to detect dangerous radioactive or chemical elements. Police say they can show live, aerial views of crime scenes or accidents and could help track lost or missing people.
McDonagh sought to reassure council members that the department would work with city leaders, the community and the ACLU to draft policies about how the drones would be used and how resulting pictures would be retained or released.
The 3.5-pound drones have a battery life of just 10 minutes. They can’t fly above 400 feet and must remain within sight of the operator at all times, under Federal Aviation Administration rules. They also can’t fly at night or above crowds.
McDonagh gave the example of last weekend’s incident involving Peter Keller, a survivalist and double-murder suspect, holed up in a bunker on a steep mountain hillside. He said a drone could have gotten closer faster than officers on the scene who waited through the night out of concerns that Keller was heavily armed. The next day, officers discovered Keller had fatally shot himself.
He said a drone could also be used to determine whether a suspect was in an apartment or had hostages.
“The idea of generally flying around to monitor the city, that’s not part of our plan,” McDonagh said.
Still, City Council members expressed some skepticism.
“We want to encourage you guys to be innovative. On the other hand, is it a toy or is it a useful tool? The best thing is to bring us along,” said Councilmember Mike O’Brien.
Jennifer Shaw of the ACLU told the council that the city could be a national leader in creating policies for drone use that respect individual privacy while making the best use of a new law-enforcement tool.
But she said she would reserve judgment until a written policy is proposed.
The police applied for a homeland-security grant in 2008. That grant was approved by then-Mayor Greg Nickels and the City Council, but the drones weren’t acquired until 2010.
Ten police officers are currently being trained to operate the drones, according to a memo from Police Chief John Diaz to council members in response to their questions. Diaz said operating and training costs are expected to be minimal.
Under FAA guidelines, all drone operators must also have a commercial-pilot license, a provision that committee Chair Bruce Harrell suggested might be “overkill.”
After the hearing, Councilmember Nick Licata said the police’s failure to more fully disclose its drone program “played into people’s worst fears” of being spied on by the government.
“We know there have been instances where police agencies have crossed the line and violated people’s civil rights. Going forward, I hope they will be open and transparent.”
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… A hella wingnutty post but someone’s got to call it. – A