Police departments in the U.S. are increasingly considering the use of drones as a law enforcement tool, even as civil rights groups and media turn up scrutiny of police militarization in the wake of brutal crackdowns on anti-brutality protesters in Ferguson, Missouri and other cities.
The Baltimore Sun reported on Sunday that agencies in several Maryland counties are considering testing drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), for intelligence gathering and "high-risk tactical raids." That news comes less than a week after anti-war activists in California protested against "mission creep" by the Los Angeles Police Department, which recently acquired several of their own drones. Indiana police departments also recently announced their plan to pursue adding drones to their weapons arsenal.
In a letter (pdf) to LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, Drone-Free LA spokesperson Hamid Kahn expressed "deep concerns about the recent 'gifting' of two Draganflyer X Drones" by the Seattle Police Department to the LAPD. "We believe the acquisition of drones signifies a giant step forward in the militarization of local law enforcement that is normalizing continued surveillance and violations of human rights of our communities," Kahn wrote.
The SPD originally purchased the unmanned aerial vehicles using a federal grant called the Urban Areas Security Initiative — a common example of the effects of the government's pervasive, $34-billion militarization program that enables domestic police departments to acquire and trade tools and weapons intended for warfare. In a June press conference, LAPD chief Charlie Beck said drones would be useful in "standoffs, perimeters, suspects hiding," and defended the department's acquisition of the UAVs by stating, "When retailers start talking about using them to deliver packages, we would be silly not to at least have a discussion of whether we want to use them in law enforcement."
But while many police departments claim that they would use the vehicles strictly for high-risk scenarios, critics have sounded the alarm over the risks of drone use, particularly by entities they say are as historically oppressive as American law enforcement agencies.
Tara Tabassi, national organizer with the War Resisters League, told Common Dreams that with the "current nationwide public outcry against police militarization, it is the many invisible methods of domestic warfare, such as the use of drones by police departments, that must be a major focus... Warfare indeed knows no borders, nor does the US government's lack of transparency and accountability as they choose to protect the identities and crimes of drone operators over the civil liberties and human rights of unarmed populations across the globe."
Police militarization and violent police responses to peaceful protests have faced increased scrutiny in recent weeks after activists and reporters in Ferguson were tear gassed and shot at while demanding justice for Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager who was shot to death by a police officer earlier this month.
"A lot of what can be done with this equipment is very much questionable, as far as adherence to the Fourth Amendment," Nathan Sheard, a campaign organizer with anti-war group CodePink, told Common Dreams. "The fact that it’s being paid for by Department of Homeland Security shows a very obvious connection with militarization. When police departments start to be armed… as military forces, rather than protecting and serving, they start occupying and oppressing."
In California, Kahn pointed to the LAPD's history of "lies, brutality, and violence against communities," and said that the department is "incapable of creating any policy that would protect our human and civil rights."
Sheard also noted "the very real possibility of installing infrared cameras" on UAVs, models of which have already appeared in the U.S.
The risks are "beyond what's just visible to the eye," Sheard said. "These are cameras that would pick up heat signals rather than video. How does that play into the Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure?"
David Rocah, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, told WJZ that drones pose an inherent risk to the right to privacy. "That is completely incompatible with a free society and I think poses real dangers and is a real possibility unless we act to prevent it," Rocah said.
Regulation of drone technology is a concern as well. Claims from police departments that the UAVs would be used transparently and "would not sacrifice public trust," as LAPD spokesperson Bruce Borhian told KNX, are not enough, Sheard said.
"Who is monitoring [the police]?" Sheard told Common Dreams. "Who’s holding them accountable? What ability do citizens have to view that information? Where do those recordings go? There are just too many questions." He noted a successful CodePink campaign to end the use of drones by a department in Washington state that simply resulted in the vehicles being traded to an agency in California. "The equipment just changed hands," Sheard said.
"Now is the time to stop the engine of surveillance technology and state repression," Tabassi told Common Dreams. "By continuing to build across all communities mobilizing against police militarization, we can effectively resist the solidifying relationship between the Pentagon and police departments, demanding an end to all drones, and militarization more broadly."
Pending Senate approval, the presence of drones in US airspace is projected to increase by 10,000 in 2015, Tabassi said. Although the use of drones by police departments is still in relative infancy, waiting on testing and Federal Aviation Administration rules, more than 500 agencies were approved to use them in the last year alone.