Police in North Dakota will be among the first in the US to use drones equipped with tasters and tear gas, after a new law was passed allowing their use.
With all the concern over the militarization of police in the past year, no one noticed that the state became the first in the union to allow police to equip drones with “less than lethal” weapons. House Bill 1328 wasn’t drafted that way, but then a lobbyist representing law enforcement—tight with a booming drone industry—got his hands on it.
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. In fact, the original draft of Representative Rick Becker’s bill would have banned all weapons on police drones.
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 like rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas, sound cannons, and Tasers 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.”
Even “less than lethal” weapons can kill though. At least 39 people have been killed by police Tasers in 2015 so far, according to The Guardian. Bean bags, rubber bullets, and flying tear gas canisters have also maimed, if not killed, in the U.S. and abroad.
Becker said he worried about police firing on criminal suspects remotely, not unlike U.S. Air Force pilots who bomb the so-called Islamic State, widely known as ISIS, from more than 5,000 miles away.
“When you’re not on the ground, and you’re making decisions, you’re sort of separate,” Becker said in March. “Depersonalized.”
Drones have been in use for decades by the military, but their high prices have prevented police departments from obtaining them until recently. Money’s no problem for the the 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.
Yet the sheriff’s department is hiding a full accounting of how many drone missions they’ve flown since 2012. Records requests by The Daily Beast were initially denied by the sheriff because they would “cost a fortune,” and were only handed over after an appeal to the state’s attorney general’s office.
The sheriff and lobbyists assured lawmakers that drones would only be used in non-criminal situations, like the search for a missing person or to photograph an accident scene. What they didn’t mention was the 2011 arrest of Rodney Brossart, a cattle thief who was caught by a Department of Homeland Security drone.