Should the military, and predator drones in particular, be used by US law enforcement?

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Apparently, “predator drones” have been used to assist US based law enforcement officials for domestic law enforcement a number of times. We all knew that drones were being used to guard our borders from hoards of Canadians coming from the North, but lately North Dakota local and state police have had drone assistance in entirely domestic law enforcement.

Armed with a search warrant, Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke went looking for six missing cows on the Brossart family farm in the early evening of June 23. Three men brandishing rifles chased him off, he said.

Janke knew the gunmen could be anywhere on the 3,000-acre spread in eastern North Dakota. Fearful of an armed standoff, he called in reinforcements from the state Highway Patrol, a regional SWAT team, a bomb squad, ambulances and deputy sheriffs from three other counties.

He also called in a Predator B drone.

The drone was used to locate the suspects, and determine that they were not armed. They were then arrested. That was the first time (that we know of) that this has happened, but not the last. Since last June, the drones in North Dakota have been used a number of times.

Local officials and the military claim that use by local law enforcement is part of the mandate of the deployment of these drones for border patrol, but at least one member of Congress, who was on the committee most directly involved in the funding and authorization of this program, says otherwise.

…former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), who sat on the House homeland security intelligence subcommittee at the time and served as its chairwoman from 2007 until early this year, said no one ever discussed using Predators to help local police serve warrants or do other basic work….”There is no question that this could become something that people will regret,” said Harman, who resigned from the House in February and now heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington think tank.

What do you think?

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9 thoughts on “Should the military, and predator drones in particular, be used by US law enforcement?

  1. Against the backdrop of the drug war, it is difficult-to-impossible to answer the general question of whether UAVs are ever an appropriate tool for domestic law enforcement. In the example here, the use was innocuous enough (though one might reasonably question whether the expense was justified, but certainly I see no abuse of civil liberties taking place here — I don’t think anybody is going to be defending the right of rifle-brandishing cattle thieves to elude detection!). But in an era of prohibition, any tool which provides the capacity of unrestricted surveillance is potentially problematic. This goes doubly so when the tool in question could be militarized at the drop of a hat — the ongoing militarization of law enforcement has been an almost exclusively bad thing.

    In a prohibition context, every citizen is a potential criminal, making a tool like this extremely disturbing. This goes doubly so because it’s the kind of thing where informal warrantless searches will be a constant temptation.

    Repeal our antiquated drug laws, and then I think it is possible to discuss a potential role for UAVs in domestic law enforcement. Until that time, however, it’s a virtual certainty that such a tool will be blatantly abused.

  2. I don’t think this one comes as a “should”. Rather, it’s a “when” as far as UAVs are concerned.
    Tech cannot be stopped, the Djinn cannot be returned to the bottle, and this tech is out there right now. What are needed are reasonable and clear guidelines on where, when, why and how UAVs (and UGVs, or even UUVs) may be used by law enforcement and emergency services. The example above is the appropriate use of a resource to ensure the safety of officers and the swift, non-violent apprehension of suspects. We need guidelines to ensure that the use of these devices remains inoccuous.
    As to the broader question of the military being involved in law enforcement, lets just say that the Posse Comitatus law seems to me a good one.

  3. i would like to see a separation of the citizen police force and the military. the military should take care of the concerns of the security of the nation and the police should take care of concerns the security of the citizens. loaning a military asset to the police blurs the line.

    grim hyperbolic thought: how long until predators use hellfire missles on perps evading police in high speed chases? or on jaywalkers? parking infractions?

  4. I really don’t see a lot of difference between using drones and using manned aircraft, which has been going on for decades. Also, the drones in question were not military, but operated by Customs & Border Protection, although they were based at a USAF facility.

  5. The real question is “should the military be allowed to use Drones under any circumstances”. My answer would be a catagorical No
    As an aside, how would you all respond if the use of Drones resulted in combat activities on US soil by the victims of Drone attacks? I suggest uniformed special forces operations against the Drone control centers would be justified under the laws of war, which would (as International law) over rule US domestic law.

  6. Using an unarmed drone I think is a no-brainer; as others have said, it’s not a lot different from using a manned aircraft. But FFS, disarm it.

    I also think that it should not be the military running these things. Local law enforcement and state troopers can pony up the cash for tech to find local criminals. Put the hemorrhagic military funds to better use for the country, like education and science.

  7. andrewD, your argument is non-sensical. If the US does ANY military actiona against ANY country, they have the right to hit us back anywhere they can. There’s no rule about them being restricted to the theatre of operations. If an enemy country (that is, one we are at war with) can insert spec force teams into the US, they will – to disrupt our logistics, cripple our command and control functions, attack our bomber bases (which regularly fly operations anywhere in the world from the continental US) and kill our upper-echelon commanders (Civilian government is always a valid target). And I for one would be fine with this – it might make our idiot politicos and more hawkish civilians a little more hesitant about foreign adventurism if it was understood they could, perfectly legally, be the victims.
    Anyway, as I understand it Predators and other combat drones are usually flown from in-theatre command bases, not from continental US bases.

  8. As mentioned, technology will march on. I think some strict guidelines should be laid out (or more likely clarified from existing law). But with wireless wiretipes and indefinite incarceration of her own citizens being acceptable, and the privitization of the prison system…. let’s just say I doubt I will agree with how drones will be used.

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