When the Express recently reported that unmanned drone aircraft were being used to hunt fugitive Christopher Dorner, for many it marked the beginning of a long-anticipated new era in American law enforcement: drones at home. After nearly two decades of successful application in overseas conflicts, it was only a matter of time before the drone found a place in domestic law enforcement.
What most followers of the Dorner story might not realize is that he was not the first US citizen pursued by drone aircraft in his homeland as Express reported. Far from it, based on circumstantial evidence around these clandestine missions and their dubious legality.
For starters, US Customs and Border Protection regularly run interference along the Mexican/American border with their eight or more UAVs. Residents in border towns regularly witness these aircraft flying missions seemingly totally unrelated to border security. New Mexican rancher tales aside, there’s the well-documented case of police in North Dakota using unmanned aircraft deployed from an Air Force base to pursue three militiamen wanted for questioning who were roaming about a 3,000-acre farm. If the legality seems questionable, it’s because you’ve likely heard of the , which forbids the military from becoming entangled in the affairs of local law enforcement. Historically, when a nation’s military begins ignoring their legislated boundaries, things start getting all coup-crazy and Tiananmeny. But since drones do not require Air Force trained pilots, a deputy sheriff with a remote control can legally operate this military hardware, designed for military applications. With super advanced military technology in the hands of local law enforcement, the Posse Comitatus Act is arguably rendered obsolete.
For those wondering how this is any different than sending, say, remote controlled tanks screaming down Main Street, it’s important to note that domestic drones controlled by cops are not yet equipped to kill, as they are abroad. Trial programs in police departments from Mesa, Colorado, to Baltimore are already underway, and soon drones will be involved in routine “search and rescue operations, traffic accident scene mapping, and some surveillance activities,” according to Don Roby, chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. However, some of the UAVs are equipped to “shoot (stun-gun) projectiles, tear gas, and rubber balls from 300 feet above ground,” according to Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, the ranking Democrato on the House Homeland Security Committee. In a USA Today article from September, the IACP’s literature was quoted recommending against arming drones, but not for strict ethical reasons. Instead, the group acknowledged, for one, their current UAVs are too small for heavy artillery but, more importantly, that armed drones would create “unnecessary community resistance to the program.”
The IACP defends the program by reasoning that their drones will make excellent surveillance tools but concedes that the likelihood of intruding upon a person’s expectation of privacy is so great that they recommend officers obtain a warrant before deploying one, an attempt at self-policing.
With the news surrounding Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent comments about the government’s right to use drones against its own citizens at home, it’s astounding that North Dakota manhunt has not remerged in the conversation.
Specifically, Holder’s sentiment about “feasibility of capture” being a determining factor in the choice to deploy drones echoes strongly in the North Dakota case. An argument can be made for using advanced military technology to track a killer ex-cop or triad of well-armed dudes dedicated to evading and overthrowing the military, but doing so illegally and in secret sets an ugly precedent. Holder didn’t address the centermost concern: whether or not the US government will use flying robots to kill civilians.
Rand Paul, the Republican Senator from Kentucky, handled that topic and more during a recent 12-plus-hour filibuster, a marathon speech on domestic drone use that stuck a chord with leaders of various political persuasions. “…No American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime,” Paul said, “without first being found to be guilty by a court, that Americans could be killed in a cafe in San Francisco or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Ky., is an abomination. It is something that should not and cannot be tolerated in our country.”
[Image: Flickr user Daniele Zanni]