It’s now legal for police in North Dakota to fly armed drones with tasers, tear gas, rubber bullets, sound cannons, and pepper spray thanks to a last-minute push by a pro-police lobbyist.
House Bill 1328 wasn’t drafted to allow “less than lethal” weapons, but then a lobbyist with links to the drone industry made changes to the bill.
The original draft of Representative Rick Becker’s bill would have banned all weapons on police drones. The bill’s stated intent was to require police to obtain a search warrant from a judge in order to use a drone to search for criminal evidence.
Then Bruce Burkett of the North Dakota Peace Officer’s Association was allowed by the state house committee to amend HB 1328 and limit the prohibition only to lethal weapons. “Less than lethal” weapons are therefore permitted on police drones.
Becker, the bill’s Republican sponsor said he had to live with it. “This is one I’m not in full agreement with. I wish it was any weapon,” he said at a hearing in March. “In my opinion there should be a nice, red line: Drones should not be weaponized. Period.”
According to The Guardian “less than lethal” weapons can still kill. At least 39 people in the U.S. have been killed by police tasers in 2015 so far. Bean bags, rubber bullets and flying tear gas canisters have also injured, if not killed, people in the U.S. and abroad.
Becker said he worried about police firing on criminal suspects remotely. “When you’re not on the ground, and you’re making decisions, you’re sort of separate,” Becker said in March. “Depersonalized.”
Depersonalization could turn drone use into more of a game with a screen and game controller/joystick, the drone controllers would be in a safe location, free from the risk of injury and free from fear. There are obvious advantages to this ability, not putting the police in danger around violent criminals, but it’s also exceptionally easy for weaponized drones to be abused. There are also chances of malfunction, misfiring, losing signal, and even being hacked and taken over remotely by another user.
Drones aren’t invincible either, Snake River Shooting Products of Emmett, Idaho, are now selling a shotgun shell designed to take down drones.
While drones have been used by the military for decades, their high prices had prevented police departments from obtaining them until recently. Money isn’t a problem for Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department, though, a California manufacturer loaned them two drones.
Grand Forks County Sheriff Bob Rost said his department’s drones are only equipped with cameras and he doesn’t think he should need a warrant to go snooping.
“It was a bad bill to start with,” Rost told The Daily Beast. “We just thought the whole thing was ridiculous.” Rost said he needs to use drones for surveillance in order to obtain a warrant in the first place. “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” Becker remembered opponents like Rost saying.
Law enforcement wasn’t the only group who disapproved of the legislation. A representative from the North Dakota Department of Commerce, the vice president of an economic development group, the founder of a drone company, and the director of the University of North Dakota’s drone major program all testified against the bill.
“I think when you’re trying to stimulate an industry in your state, you don’t want things that would potentially have a chilling effect on [drone] manufacturers,” said Al Frazier, a Grand Forks sheriff’s deputy who pilots the drones.
According to documents obtained by MuckRock, the FAA notes 401 drone “operations” performed by the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department from 2012 to September 2014, while Rost and Frazier maintain just 21 missions have taken place. Those 401 operations noted by the FAA have resulted in 80.5 hours of flights, a number that can’t be independently verified because a lawyer representing the sheriff’s department did not include duration of flights for the 21 missions detailed in response to an open-records request from The Daily Beast. (HB 1328 requires police to retain data, including flight duration, for five years after it is collected.)
“To read Rep. Becker’s bill, you would think that these would be highly effective surveillance tools that could be put up over locations for persistent surveillances and violate people’s constitutional rights,” Frazier told the Herald in January. “And the reality is none of that is correct.”
“[Frazier] spoke openly about the potential use of unmanned systems in North Dakota,” at the conference, Nelson said. “The list included the deployment of a hovering drone that was ‘Not audible or visible to people below in order to collect real-time intelligence video.’”
Grand Forks is probably the only place in the country where you’ll find advertisements for Predator drones, the operators of which are trained and stationed at the nearby Air Force base. The University of North Dakota even offer a four-year degree in drones. Maybe surprisingly, this isn’t the only university offering a “drone education.”
The university is also creating Grand Sky, billed as a UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) research and development facility. It will combine all of the benefits of private entrepreneurship and government capital. Tenants there will have access to some of the Air Force base’s facilities, and drone companies are clamoring to get their spots. Grand Sky is billed as an opportunity to “Create History Where the Future is Wide Open.”
Becker, the Republican state legislator who sponsored HB 1328, said heartburn over individual privacy, constitutional rights, and, on a larger scale, the ethics of killing people a half a world away by wielding a joystick, doesn’t seem to exist for many in the state.
Part of the reason for this, Frazier argued, is that a compliance committee keeps police use of drones in check. The committee tracks and reviews how police use their drones and discusses possible privacy concerns, but they have no legal authority. Frazier, others in law enforcement, representatives from the private sector, and those from the University of North Dakota, all cited the committee watchdog role as another reason why HB 1328 was unnecessary.
Of the committee’s 18 members, six are from the University of North Dakota, which have an obvious interest in promoting drone use. Three members are from local government, including the city planner and an assistant state’s attorney. The rest are either current or former members of law enforcement and emergency services.
Frazier said that the sheriff’s department had nothing to do with the makeup of the group, which was created by a charter.
The bill itself could be seen as a good thing, banning lethal weapons on police drones and requiring warrants from judges. This may leave more questions than answers.
The intent of the bill was to require the police to obtain a warrant from a judge in order to use a drone to search for criminal evidence, this suggests that before HB 1328 passed, no warrant was required. This also suggests that the same applies in other states, where there are is no legislation requiring police to obtain warrants.
Worryingly, in states lacking legislation, weaponized drones, even with fully lethal weapons, may be assumed legal until made illegal.
While the police have no immediate public intent to actually arm their drones with more than a camera, it can still be worrying to know that it is legal.
Many people may also be concerned with the privacy concern of drones with cameras.
The abilities of drones will continue to increase along with decreasing prices. Their use will likely expand with ever-more universities running programs to train people to both use and creaete drone technology for the police and the military: it is only a matter of time.