By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project
The Daily Beast has reported that North Dakota has enacted a drone bill that permits law enforcement drones to be equipped with weapons such as Tasers, rubber bullets, tear gas, and sound cannons. This is a terrible idea.
Having attended numerous drone meetings and conferences in the past several years attended by a broad array of industry, law enforcement, and other government representatives, I can confidently say that there is a broad consensus that armed domestic drones are beyond the pale. With the exception of one sheriff in Texas who mused about arming drones several years ago, the concept is never even seriously discussed in the drone community. Several states have already enacted flat bans on weaponized drones (examples include Oregon , Virginia, and Wisconsin).
Although there are plenty of states that have not passed drone legislation at all, and some states have enacted legislation that makes no mention of the arming of drones (such as Florida, Tennessee, and Utah), the North Dakota bill is different. While it does explicitly ban the arming of police drones with “lethal weapons,” it remains silent on so-called “less-than-lethal weapons.”
Here’s why arming drones, even with less-frequently-lethal weapons, is a such a bad idea:
- Drones make it too easy to use force. When domestic law enforcement officers can use force from a distance, it may become too easy for them to do so, and the inevitable result will be that these weapons are over-used—just as surveillance tools, having become so cheap and easy, are widely overused. Tasers were originally sold as an alternative to guns—and who could dispute that getting an electric shock is better than getting a bullet? Yet we know that Tasers are routinely used by police officers not as a last-resort use of force, as guns are supposed to be, but as a torture device to get truculent suspects to comply with police commands through the application of pain—and all-too-often, as a way of punishing citizens for the crime of “dissing a cop.”
- “Nonlethal” weapons aren’t actually nonlethal. So-called “nonlethal” or “less-than-lethal” weapons should be called “less lethal” weapons because they do kill. Tasers regularly kill Americans—39 people so far in 2015, according to the Guardian, and comparable numbers each year going back to 2001 according to an Amnesty International report on the technology, which also found that 90% of those killed with Tasers were unarmed.
- Distance=inaccuracy. Even when officers are physically present, fully immersed in a situation—with 360-degree vision and all of their other senses in play—we know that force is often over-used. When officers are not physically present, their perception of a situation and their judgment about when to apply force is more likely to be flawed, non-targets are more likely to be injured, and excessive amounts of force are more likely to be applied. And the drones themselves may be inaccurate due to wind, communications and control problems, or other factors.
- This will open the door to increasing weaponization. If we allow less-lethal weapons to be deployed on drones, how long will it be before the door is opened to fully lethal weapons. Already the Pentagon has developed a small (under 6-pound) lethal “kamikaze” drone called the “Switchblade,” which functions as a pint-sized guided missile. The Army is reportedly considering spending $100 million on such drones under a program called the Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System.
- It will only increase the militarization of police. The heavily militarized response to the protests in Ferguson and so many other places around the country have been bad enough; imagine if the police there were permitted to fill the skies with drones raining beanbag bullets, Tasers, tear gas, and sound cannons down on protesters.
This bill does impose restrictions on police use of drones for surveillance, which is a good thing, and initially, it banned all weapons on drones. The ACLU supported the initial version of the bill. But the weaponization provision was altered through last-minute lobbying by the state’s police association.
Just because police departments in North Dakota have been given permission by their legislature to fly armed drones does not mean that they need to do so, or will. Indeed the strong national consensus against doing so may hold them back until hopefully this anomalous legislation can be reversed.