Should We Let Law Enforcement Drone On and On?

Domestic shock-and-awe is now becoming par for the course.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell thinks the use of unmanned aerial drones for domestic law enforcement is—his word—"great." As he told WTOP radio in Washington recently, "[It] cuts down on manpower in the air, and also [is] more safe. That’s why we use it on the battlefield."

Well, yes. But there is a slight difference between Baltimore and Basra or Kansas and Kandahar: We’re not at war in Baltimore or Kansas. We’re not trying to vanquish enemy forces in Washington, or repel an invasion inNorth Dakota.

Admittedly, you might not know that by looking at today’s hyper-militarized police forces. In recent years they have been stocking up on body armor, flashbang grenades, assault rifles, and armored vehicles like the Lenco BearCat G3—an 8-ton, quarter-million-dollar behemoth that is all the rage in burgs both big and small. (Among the localities that have bought a BearCat G3 is Warren County, Va., a bucolic place of 40,000 that averages one homicide every three years. If that.)

But domestic shock-and-awe is now becoming par for the course. Earlier this year Virginia State Police officers donned combat gear to face down a small group of pro-choice protesters at the Capitol here in Richmond—a level of overkill on the order of opening the door to an Easy-Bake Oven with a splitting maul.

Now law-enforcement agencies around the country are buying drones. During the Clinton years, homegrown militia groups used to warn about black helicopters in whisper mode spying on American citizens. The paranoid fantasies seemed funny at the time. That was then. As of this writing more than 300 state and local police departments have bought drones and applied for federal permission to use them.

Some drones are in domestic use already. The EPA has been using them to overfly farms in Nebraska and Iowa to look for any possible violations of the Clean Water Act. Does the agency have any probable cause to conduct such searches? No. The dragnet surveillance violates the Fourth Amendment, but it is being carried out with impunity.

Last year a sheriff in Nelson County, North Dakota, called in a Predator drone to help find three men with rifles on a sprawling family farm. According to a December story in the Los Angeles Times, “local police say they have used two unarmed Predators based at Grand Forks Air Force Base to fly at least two dozen surveillance flights since June. The FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration have used Predators for other domestic investigations, officials said.”

But it’s not as if the drones are in constant use! Oh, no. As Bill Macki, the head of the Grand Forks SWAT team, said, “We don’t use them on every call-out. If we have something in town like an apartment complex, we don’t call them.” That is certainly a load off.

Are there legitimate reasons to use drones domestically? Certainly—and advocates like to cite the missing-child hypothetical as an example. Fine. Drones also are being used to patrol the U.S. border. And a recent story in The Times-Dispatch noted that Virginia Tech has a drone as well—to study atmospheric microbial life by collecting airborne spore samples. Even private eyes and paparazzi are getting in on the game.

Yet there also are reasons not to accept the drone-ification of the American skies with bovine complacency. For one thing, they add another piece to the mosaic of the modern surveillance state.

That mosaic already includes a proliferating number of cameras in public places, from Palm Springs toWashington, D.C.—where police officers in the Joint Operations Command can watch live video feeds from dozens of streetcorner cams around the city. The mosaic also includes dragnet surveillance efforts such as the poking and prodding of little old ladies at the nation’s airports; New York’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy; and the routine use of police checkpoints on city streets – along with manifold databases such as the Department of Homeland Security’s Automated Targeting System, which vacuums up information about everything from car rentals to email contacts.

Supporters of drones cite court precedents holding that law-enforcement agencies can conduct aerial surveillance without a warrant. Drones, they contend, are simply the next logical step in the technological evolution. They might be right.

On the other hand, law enforcement and the Obama administration made much the same argument last year, in a case about using GPS devices to monitor a suspect’s movements over an extended period of time. Supporters of GPS tracking contended that it was no different from putting a tail on somebody. The Justices rejected that argument 9-0.

It’s not hard to see how their concern about the effect of long-term, surreptitious surveillance on the right to privacy in that case could translate to the routine use of domestic drones watching people from 10,000 feet up. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Chronicles of Narnia, “If there’s a wasp in the room I like to be able to see it.”

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.

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  • Lord Humungus||

    alt-text: John's fantasy comes true.

  • ChrisO||

    LOL.

    He'd respect her authoritah, for sure.

  • sarcasmic||

    Only lawbreakers could object to this, since you've got nothing to fear if you aren't doing anything wrong.

  • Mickey Doodah||

    And how long before political opposition activism is deemed "lawbreaking"?
    Once you accept invasion of privacy, it doesn't take long before the abuse of power can easily lead to population control.
    Yes, if you are law-abiding then you have nothing to fear, but remember, who sets the laws? Oh the same people operating the drones.
    The opposite also stands. If the majority are law-abiding, why do the powers that be want such extensive ability to monitor everyone?
    Hence the fourth amendment...probably cause...

  • Pi Guy||

    Maybe we can get the WikiLeaks and Stuxnet people together to take control of the drone guidance systems and crash them into government buildings.

  • Ron||

    I have committed no crimes which leaves them no reason to watch over me so could we sue the government to stop them from using drones in a random fashion without a warrent. this would be different than a stop light camera which I believe only takes a picture once a car has gone through a red light where as drones and other video survelance is continually recording all our moves even without a crime being committed and with out a warrent.

  • Pi Guy||

    Shit - I'm on the list now, aren't I?

  • Lord Humungus||

    don't worry, we're all on the list.

  • Pi Guy||

    Oh, cool

  • mybarber||

    DUI roadblocks(and lowreing the 'legal limit( by alomost half),stop and frisk,military raids on raids on pot smokers .With the drones thnow have it all covered.The days of going about you life and doing no harm being enough to keep you from arrest is over

  • ||

    go live in a state taht has a right to privacy (like mine)

  • Being Waterboarded||

    How many holes would I have to put in one with my AR-15 before it would come down? I mean, I could possibly mistake a drone as a Krugman-led alien invasion... At what altitude do these puppies fly, anyhow?

  • Harvard||

    Makes one want to buy an ultralight and hunt down a few with the old 12 gauge.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    That’s why we use it on the battlefield.

    Now you know how Bob (and most every other politician) views our State.

  • fresno dan||

    "We’re not trying to vanquish enemy forces in Washington,"
    Well, we kooky band of libertarians look upon them as citizens, but all politicians know that "citizens" are really the enemy...

  • Lowdog||

    So I'm sure they won't mind if I build my own drones and fly them around. It would just be for scientific research, so I don't see a problem.

  • Ron||

    Would there be a penalty if my private drone accidentally ran into a government drone, I forgot destruction of government property but since it would be an accident and there are no laws yet regulating drones in air space?

  • Anonymoose||

    Civilian drones that fly under 500 feet are currently legal and unregulated. There are hobbyist websites all about it.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    Absolutely, as long as every drone over the public had an equivalent spying on police stations, squad cars, and cop activities with ALL videos stored on the servers of a powerful citizen review board lined with civil-libertarians.

  • ChrisO||

    Supporters of drones cite court precedents holding that law-enforcement agencies can conduct aerial surveillance without a warrant. Drones, they contend, are simply the next logical step in the technological evolution. They might be right.

    Just because something might be constitutional, doesn't mean it's a good idea.

    The sad thing is, it seems like the majority has no problem giving up their liberty in this fashion, since it makes us "safe" or something.

  • Silly ol' Bear||

    Completely illegal, absolutely ridiculous. Kinda irrelevant though, just have a good rifle nearby, they might be fun for target practice!

  • ||

    1666 Destruction of Government Property—18 U.S.C. § 1361

    Section 1361 protects "any property" of the United States or an agency or department thereof, or any property being manufactured or constructed for the United States or an agency or department thereof, from willful depredation or attempted depredation. "Depredation" has been characterized as the act of plundering, robbing, pillaging or laying waste. United States v. Jenkins, 554 F.2d 783, 786 (6th Cir. 1977); cf. Deal v. United States, 274 U.S. 277, 283 (1927) ("depredation" defined in context of postal statute). This section prohibits actual physical damage or destruction of both real and personal property [...]

  • Pi Guy||

    Oh, good. At least I know what law I'll be breaking.

  • Anonymoose||

    They might charge you with murdering a police officer...

  • ||

    "But there is a slight difference between Baltimore and Basra or Kansas and Kandahar: We’re not at war in Baltimore or Kansas. "

    Thats what you think Barton.

    "That’s why we use it on the battlefield."
    Not what Bob McDonnell and his ilk thinks.

  • fresno dan||

    Sheriff Dick Tator said that rumors that his office had flown 1,837,452,015 sorites over the Nature's Glory nudist reteat during the teenage girls vollyball competition were "exagerated" Sheriff Dick said that the extreme danger caused by nubile young poontang meant that drones offered the best methodology for checkingout, uh, monitoring the sweaty, glistening young women...

  • Loki||

    But it’s not as if the drones are in constant use! - Yet

  • ||

    NO!

    full stop. no equivocation. ok, nothing more to discuss here...

  • The Fatman||

    Die in a fire with your progeny you jack-booted piece of shit. I just can't say that often enough.

  • ||

    smooches to you too.

    and fwiw, as a former firefighter, and as a cop who was cited for valor for running into a fire when a bunch of "civilians" sat around and watched people jumping out of a second story window, i can just say...

    i'd rather die in a fire doing the right thing, then be some worthless internet troll who criticizes but produces nothing of value

    have a wonderful day.

    and sm00ches again!

  • Pi Guy||

    "...as a cop who was cited for valor for running into a fire when a bunch of "civilians" sat around..."

    IOW, you were doing your job.

  • ||

    not according to my agency. i was going well beyond the EXPECTATIONS of my job. we are neither equipped nor trained to deal with being inside structure fires. and it was exceedingly dangerous. i did have the advantage of having 'special knowledge' as a former firefighter. iow, i could note smoke color, fire dynamics, floor damage, etc. and make much more intelligent risk assessments than the average cop. iow, i was armed with information and skills. the most powerful weapons on earth

    cops are expected to take some risks, and are expected to use various means to mitigate those risks within reason (guns out on felony stops, not expected to use the same level of force as being presented with by the suspect, but generally one level higher, etc.)

    but no, i was going beyond the expectations of my job

    and in fact, ironically, i was given a thorough verbal beatdown by a fire lieutenat who arrived on scene to find me and my partner coughing up soot and was ENRAGED that we had gone into the fire without SCBA gear. iow, it was THEIR job not ours.

    i have never come closer to slugging somebody (unjustifiably) than that assmunch.

    the REAL firefighters on scene were appreciative, but i guess a fire-o-crat is much like a cop-o-crat

  • Harvard||

    Hats off to you flatfoot, we'll schedule a parade in your honor. All this bullshit about it being a dangerous job. If it's that bad, turn in your brownshirt and get another job.

  • ||

    it is more dangerous than some, less dangerous than others. wambaugh once said it was one of the most emotionally dangerous fwiw.

    lots of jobs are more physically dangerous. ironworker, for instance.

    of course, ironworkers are rarely put into situations where they can and do make split second life or death decisions as to the fate of others, nor are they given the opportunity for heroics

    and yes, when faced with such decisions (save lives or not) some of us will step up to the plate, and some won;t.

    heck, out of the cops on the scene, only one would go in the building with me. she and i are good buds to this day and i respect her courage and discipline.

    i'm not asking for a parade.

    i am saying i was not merely doing my job, considering that if i did not do it, i would not be disciplined, censured, etc.

    i simply went well beyond the call, and yes i am proud of it.

    i am also proud of my fellow officers who frequently do the same thing with NO public recognition whatsoever for everyday acts of heroism and selfless sacrifice.

    there are those who make a positive difference, and then there are those who make silly hitler references on the internet

    i know which group i fit into, but i am sure your life is fulfilling somehow.

  • ||

    It would be one thing if our system of law was such that it was actually meant to maintain rule of law (preventing people from harming others). If that were the case, then this wouldn't be such a big deal. The problem is that most of our laws today are meant to influence behavioral choices (drug laws, soda bans, environmental regulations). When we have terrible laws like these that restrict our choices, the idea of aerial drones becomes abhorrent.

  • Ron||

    Wouldn't it be cheaper to just put cameras in every home? Rats now that that idea is out it won't be long.

  • ||

    state of wa prosecutors and our legal system may be relatively 'weak' on criminal penalties, but they are aggressive when it comes to prosecuting people for rendering criminal assistance, especially to murderous scumbags (cue: but the cops, but the cops derp derp derp )

    as in the clemons case, and several other recent cases, the message is clear - help a murderer evade apprehension, lie as to protect his whereabouts, etc. and face consequences.

    period!
    PORT ORCHARD, Wash. - The former girlfriend of the man who killed a Washington State Patrol trooper pleaded guilty Friday to rendering criminal assistance and was sentenced to six months in the Kitsap County jail.

    Jessi Leigh Foster, 32, made phone calls and sent text messages trying to help Joshua Blake escape after he shot Trooper Tony Radulescu last February in Gorst.

    According to Kitsap County sheriff's officials, Blake contacted Foster shortly after the trooper's death and told her he did something bad and needed help to escape.

    She met Blake at a rundown trailer on a dirt road a few miles away, where she pressed him on what he had done. Even after Blake admitted that he shot a state trooper,she continued trying to help,said Sgt. Ken Dickinson of the Kitsap County Sheriff's Office.

    She was still there when Blake walked into the woods and killed himself as a SWAT team closed in,officials said.She was arrested for investigation of rendering criminal assistance.

    several others in this case have been similarly convicted

  • ||

    good taser usage the other day...

    that will of course never make the news. the guy actually threw the metal end of shovel at me AND assaulted my partner before we tased him AND he was so violent that (as rarely happens) he was given a hearing within 72 hrs and promptly shipped off to a mental institution.

    note : we did not even charge him for the assault (since he was obviously so completely insane), but he was exceedingly violent and without the tasers we probably would have ended up shooting him

    yet another PERFECT example of the myriad of instances where tasers are a great benefit, but will NEVER make the news since there was no blood on the street

    note also, that since we classified it as a mental case, under HPPA, it would not even be publically disclosable

  • ||

    by the other day, i mean several weeks ago btw.

  • Harvard||

    You will simply never realize how close you are to being the manager at the Zyklon shower adjacent to the crematory will you?

  • ||

    jesus fucking christ, dood.

    that's about the lamest godwin-esque piece of shit comment i've read in a while.

    congrats. i guess

  • Harvard||

    My guess is you're a hobby cop in some small town or hamlet with delusions of big city grandeur.

    Should/when push come(s) to shove the totalitarian state doesn't have to look far for the brownshirts. They're already in place. It's why most love the job to begin with. You'll do it, due to some twisted sense of duty and because you love to wield power is why you'll do it. It's what makes you you, this is no psychological secret.

  • joy||

    In recent years they have been stocking up on body armor, flashbang grenades, assault rifles, and armored vehicles like the Lenco BearCat G3—an 8-ton, quarter-million-dollar behemoth that is all the rage in burgs both big and small. (Among the localities that have bought a BearCat G3 is Warren County, Va., http://www.zonnebrilinnl.com/z.....-3_22.html a bucolic place of 40,000 that averages one homicide every three years. If that.)

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    we has met da enemy and he are us.

    "HONOR, SERVICE, COMPASSION." Let me kill your toy poodle.

  • ||

    time to wake up americans your in the past they are used=and water rights in nebraska ok i have 3-100 24-7-365-8yrs yup go ahead with the dope-nuts etc.. ya lil nuts wouldnt u be -well i have a half p-u full of proof so by even u beware its my stupid loss what next and 2 all u non believers come down see the show if u dont i give u 10,ooo grand if u see it you give me 500 deal or no deal odds on your side not 4 a new york min are they so rember stars dont move nor do they blink red or green- 4 attemps on my life i hav proof law involed last 8yrs lost dad to 1in a million illness now mom to a 1 in a million other illness-i can go on and on but that should answer your issue

  • ||

    p.s.thats any night cloudy rainny lighting u name it i can make a 100 or appear in nebr or i also can do it in your home town yup anywhere bet still good i live in a town of 1300 people i drove to kc airport they still can appear and do souix city tex mo ks iowa s.d. jmocamaross@ymail.com

  • A Friend||

    We need to have a Police Tribunal in each state, with three judges on the side of the cops, and three against, ties decided by a (truly) random, pick someone off the street lottery. The police need to be accountable to the citizens of their State, starting now.

  • ||

    dear friend what i believe your are say;n called a person who is working just 4 the people nor jus 4 gov is 100% 4 justice ya omaha ne had 1 but they couldnt afford her 50k a year but we spend 100 s of thousands on police chiefs buy outs in couple of yrs

  • Jimbo BTR||

    "We’re not at war in Baltimore or Kansas"

    Both the War of Terror and the War on Druggies are being fought on home soil so, you're wrong about that.

    More importantly, the War against the Constitution is being fought exclusively at home so, they need every tool at their disposal to win quickly lest "the people" get wise and start fighting back.

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    Considering that the 1st pair of Nike Air Max, Nike Air Utmost gain in the use of massive unit of the air padding during the back again heel which is obvious inside the side of your midsole in many models.

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