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.