Congress recently passed a bill requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to integrate all military drones into U.S. airspace. In the last few days, there has been a flurry of press regarding the bill including a “Room for Debate” piece in the New York Times. The piece articulated various viewpoints, from concerns about massive, drone-fueled corporate databases to “drone operators for social justice” from journalists covering and sympathetic to the Occupy movement.
The assumption in the piece and most other coverage has been about privacy concerns arising from the domestic use of drones. (One notable exception: Salon’s Glenn Greenwald.) The worries are well founded, but they also assume that the government’s use of drones would be limited to surveillance by federal agencies. Little of the press has linked the story to a broader phenomenon that journalist Radley Balko has been covering: The paramilitarization of local police forces.
The bill does not “OK” the integration of drones (as the Chicago Tribune claims) but requires the integration of all drones, including Predator and Reaper drones. While the prospect of military drones assisting in routine law enforcement may seem fanciful or even dystopian, their use has already begun. In December, the Nelson County Police in North Dakota called in a bomb squad, a SWAT team, and a Predator B Drone to assist in apprehending three armed men whom the police were looking for after six cows had gone missing.
The drones were not based in the area in order to aid the police; they belonged to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which operates the Predators along the border with Canada to prevent illegal immigration and smuggling. They are used so often to aid local police, however, that the head of the local SWAT team qualified, “We don’t use [drones] on every call out. If we have something in town like an apartment complex, we don’t call them.” Customs and Border Protection has interpreted its authorization of drones to use as it sees fit, which includes using them domestically for purposes of law enforcement.
While the Predators in North Dakota did not contain weapons, the police department in Montgomery County, Texas has already purchased drones with the intention of weaponizing them in “non-lethal” ways.
The paramilitirization of police forces has been going on for about thirty years. The biggest driver has been federal funding for programs that deliver military equipment for free or for a discount to local police forces. In the three years following a 1994 law that authorized the Pentagon to directly donate surplus equipment, the Pentagon donated 3,800 M-16s, 2,185 M-14s, 73 grenade launchers, and 112 armed personal carriers to domestic, civilian agencies. The military also trains local police forces and arranges for “troops-to-cops” programs.
The tragic lesson has been that when local police have more force, they use it. Balko catalogues many of the worst abuses. SWAT teams are routinely used to serve drug warrants, many of which are erroneous. They have been used to break up illegal poker games, raid fraternity parties suspected of underage drinking, and enforce occupational licensing requirements. The disproportionate use of force too often leads to tragedy, leading to the death of innocents, non-violent offenders, and police officers. (For a catalogue of victims of botched raids, see here.)
Lessons we may take away from the proliferation of SWAT teams include: 1) The federal government assists local police forces in obtaining new technologies; and 2) when local police forces have new and powerful technology, they overuse it. A proliferation of drones could aid the police in their work of apprehending violent criminals and responding to emergencies. However, military technology should not slowly infiltrate public life through federal agencies “assisting” local police departments based on vague authorizations, but instead be the result of a public debate that weighs their pros and cons. It’s probably about time to get started.