It started as a relatively routine cattle rustling investigation. But things quickly deteriorated when six of the missing cows wandered onto the 3,000-acre Brossart property in Nelson County in northeastern North Dakota.
County Sheriff Kelly Janke was on the rustlers' trail. But he knew that the Brossart family had a worrying reputation. They were affiliated with the Sovereign Citizens Movement, a reputed extremist group. So no one was surprised when three family members pulled weapons on Janke's deputies as they approached the ranch.
No one wanted a gunfight. The deputies retreated and called out the regional SWAT team, state highway patrol and a bomb squad. But the vastness of the property made it hard to know where danger might lurk. The 1,000-square mile County has only four people per square mile.
So Janke also called in the drones.
He formally requested deployment of the Predator B drone, commonly used in Iraq and Afghanistan, which flies out of Grand Forks Air Force Base, and is under the control of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Flying at an inconspicuous altitude of two miles, the images sent back to the command post revealed where the suspects were—and, most importantly, that they were no longer armed. The three men were arrested without incident.
The June 23, 2011 operation represented the first time civilians had been arrested in connection with a use of a drone.
It triggered a political and media backlash.
Janke refuses to discuss the operation with the media, As many as 24 additional drone flights have since been used by civilian law enforcement agencies in North Dakota. It reflects the growing trend of law enforcement agencies, particularly in rural areas, to use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to help them police remote, hard-to-access areas around the country.
The use of drones has proven effective in Iraq and Afghanistan. But their civilian application has been met with mixed emotions since Congress authorized their use by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2005 to perform surveillance along the U.S.-Mexican Border for illegal immigrants, human trafficking and narcotics smuggling.
A drone was first used by the Texas Department of Public Safety in 2009 to pre-empt a SWAT raid on a house outside Austin, but the technology has managed to stay off the radar screen until the Nelson County raid in June 2011.
The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to have regulations governing their use in commercial airspace by the end of this month. So far, four police agencies have been approved to use UAVs: the Mesa County Sheriff's office in rural Colorado, Miami-Dade Police, Lane County Sheriff, Ore. and the Texas Department of Public Safety
Many law enforcement authorities consider drone surveillance technology an invaluable tool when there is limited manpower or the terrain is too remote or rugged to conduct land-based surveillance or search and rescue missions.
The North Dakota case illustrates, according to some, it benefit for increasing officer (and suspect) safety. Once the airborne surveillance confirmed the suspects were not armed, police could use the appropriate amount of non-lethal force.
Dale Patrick, spokesman, Queen Anne's County Sheriff's Office said his department recently had a fugitive search that required the assistance of five additional agencies.
“Had we had a drone, it would have been a great assistance,” he said.
Patrick said a Jan. 23, 2011 article in The Washington Post caused “more headaches for us about drones than we expected.” According to Patrick, his department was erroneously identified as having purchased a drone when in fact they were invited to attend a training session by the Department of Justice.
“There was a public perception that we were spying on them which was just terrible— there was a lot of political backlash,” Patrick said.
Drones for Sale
While his department, like many others in the country, is battling diminishing budgets that he says “barely keep enough officers in uniform and in patrol cars,” Patrick would consider purchasing a drone-type vehicle.
In Mesa County for instance, UAVs make economic sense. It costs for instance $1.7 million to purchase a helicopter, and once the bills come in for crew and maintenance, such an expense is hard to justify for cash-strapped county governments.
The new generation of civilian law enforcement UAVs can be purchased for under $50,000 apiece, just a few thousand dollars more than a fully equipped patrol car.
In 2009, the Mesa County Sheriff's Office obtained an experimental demo model Draganflyer X6 from Draganfly Innovations in Saskatoon, Canada which, according to Heather Benjamin, the sheriff's spokesperson, was relegated to test and training flights over the county landfill for more than a year and a half because of strict FAA regulations.
Mesa County has deployed the Draganflyer X6 some 30 times for search and rescue, fugitive searches, and fatal accidents “It has only been in the last few months that our Certificate of Authorization was expanded to allow us to us the device tactically,” Benjamin said.
Since the restrictions have been loosened by the FAA on when law enforcement agencies can deploy a drone, allowing them to deploy it for tactical use without permission (although the agency must still be notified). They are expected to be loosened even further for civilian law enforcement agencies nationwide in the coming weeks.
“There are tons of benefits to these eyes in the sky, most importantly, the safety of officers and suspects,” Benjamin said.
Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Department of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) doesn't agree.
Threat to Privacy?
She warns blanket FAA approval for drone raises concerns about a threat to privacy.
“We are not opposed to the use of UAVs in the case of specific investigations,” said Crump, who co- authored a report released Dec. 15 dealing with the need for privacy protection by the FAA when drones are used.
“Our privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that the new technology will be used responsibly and consistently with democratic values,” warns the ACLU report, Protecting Privacy From Aerial Surveillance.
“We need a system of rules to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this technology without bringing us a large step closer to a 'surveillance society' in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities.”
The report recommends that drones should not be deployed unless there are grounds to believe that they will collect evidence on a specific crime. If a drone is likely to intrude on reasonable privacy expectations, a judicial warrant should be required.
The report also calls for restrictions on retaining images of identifiable people, as well as an open process for developing policies on how drones will be used.
While Crump said the report was being worked on before the Nelson County raid, the incident accelerated the need for establishing domestic operating rules for drones that protect civil liberties. .
“We want to be ahead of the curve and establish ground rules before there may be a violation of privacy, not after,” Crump said.
Joseph Kolb is editor and publisher of the weekly Gallup (New Mexico) Herald, and an instructor in the Western New Mexico University Dept. of Criminal Justice. He welcomes comments from readers.