Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been an important part of our military operations for years. Now they may finally be taking on a role in civilian life as well.
It became public knowledge this month that authorities used a Predator B drone was to avoid a potentially violent confrontation in North Dakota last June. This is the first known use of a UAV to make an arrest.
The problems started when six cows, valued at $6,000, wandered onto a family farm owned by members of the Sovereign Citizen Movement, an anti-government group that the FBI considers extremist. When Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke arrived to investigate, he was allegedly threatened at gunpoint. Police officers hesitated to make a second attempt to visit the property, worrying that doing so could spur a violent clash. So they borrowed a drone from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
With the drone, police officers were able to keep an eye on the family. Only after thermal imaging taken from the drone revealed that the family had left their rifles behind did the police move in. In a search of the property, the police found four rifles, two shotguns, assorted bows and arrows and a samurai sword, as well as the six cows. Alex, Thomas and Jacob Brossart, all brothers, were arrested for terrorizing the sheriff during his first visit.
I last wrote about the promise of using UAVs for civilian purposes in late September, before the role of the drone in the North Dakota case was known. At the time, I argued that UAVs could play an important role in keeping us all safer without compromising our fundamental rights. This new information underscores that.
The drone used by the North Dakota police officers was one of eight owned by CBP. Bill Macki, head of the police SWAT team that helped make the arrests, said that he has used the drones several times since. “Anything where we need an advantage, we try to give them a call,” he said. Janke, the sheriff, explained in a telephone interview with the Los Angeles Times that the drones are useful because they allow police officers to take their time and “methodically plan out” an approach, rather than being forced to “go in guns blazing.” Since drones can stay in the air for extended periods of time, they are particularly helpful when suspects could be anywhere in a large area, which is a common situation in sparsely populated North Dakota.
Still, most of our country’s UAVs have yet to make their debut on U.S. soil. The military and the CIA have been given priority in obtaining this technology, which makes sense. But under the Posse Comitatus Act and Department of Defense regulations, the military is barred from engaging in domestic police work. The CIA is also strictly confined to non-U.S. operations. The fact that agencies like CBP and the Coast Guard are under the Department of Homeland Security, rather than the Department of Defense, opens up some options for their equipment to be used for domestic purposes, although with some 7,500 miles of land border to patrol, the eight CBP drones probably don’t have a lot of downtime.
The arrival of UAVs in civilian life has also been delayed by concerns over their ability to safely avoid other objects in crowded skies. The Federal Aviation Administration currently exercises tight control over the use of UAVs in domestic airspace.
While the technology is evolving, however, we ought to focus on addressing the bureaucratic hurdles that could keep UAVs from entering civilian skies once it is safe for them to be there. We do not want to set dangerous precedents by allowing poorly controlled military, intelligence and border protection operations to supersede civilian law enforcement. I have, in fact, written before about the problems that result when CBP agents extending their reach beyond the borders. But the North Dakota case provides a model for how agencies with different missions can share valuable equipment, such as UAVs, while still carrying out their own functions. I see no reason why police departments or other agencies could not borrow equipment and personnel from the military in the same way, so long as civil agencies remained completely in control of all civilian operations.
UAVs are national assets, paid for and maintained by U.S. taxpayers. Those taxpayers deserve to receive the maximum benefit their assets can provide. If UAVs can help our military monitor insurgents, then they should also be able to help our sheriffs monitor domestic gunmen and ensure that wayward cattle can be safely returned home.