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The rapid advance of drone technology has sparked interest by police and sheriff offices in acquiring drones. This new eagerness of many nonfederal law enforcement agencies to acquire drones has been also closely nurtured by the federal government.
The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have through grants, training programs, and “centers of excellence” been collaborating with the drone industry and local law enforcement agencies to introduce unmanned aerial vehicles to the homeland.
Through its Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) – a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program established to assist communities with counterterrorism projects – DHS provides grants to enable police and sheriffs departments to launch their own drone programs.
According to DHS, UASI “provides funding to address the unique planning, organization, equipment, training, and exercise needs of high-threat, high-density urban areas, and assists them in building an enhanced and sustainable capacity to prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from acts of terrorism.”
In 2011a DHS UASI grant of $258,000 enabled the Montgomery County Sheriffs Office in Texas to purchase a ShadowHawk drone from Vanguard Defense Industries. DHS UASI grants also allowed the city of Arlington, Texas to buy two small drones.
Miami also counted on DHS funding to purchase its UAV. Even in the UASI project proposals there is little or no mention of terrorism or counterterrorism. Local police forces want drones to bolster their surveillance capabilities and as an adjunct to their SWAT teams and narc squads.
DHS is not only the federal department promoting drone deployment in the homeland. Over the past four decades the federal government — mainly through the Department of Justice’s criminal-justice assistance grants — has played a central role in shaping the priorities and operations of state and local law enforcement.
DOJ, through its National Institute of Justice, has been working closely with industry and local law enforcement to “develop and evaluate low-cost unmanned aircraft systems.” In 2011 National Institute of Justice grants went to such large military contractors and drone manufacturers as Lockheed Martin, ManTech, and L-3 Systems to operate DOJ-sponsored “centers of excellence” devoted to the use of technology by local law enforcement for surveillance, communications, biometrics, and sensors. Lockheed Martin operates the DOJ’s National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center, which brings police together with industry.
Border security hawks in Congress have encouraged CBP/OAM to put DHS drones at the disposal of border law enforcement agencies, particularly the Texas border sheriffs. At a July 15, 2010 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, Henry Cuellar, then subcommittee chair, suggested that OAM could provide real-time data streams from Predator surveillance directly to the border sheriffs.
Responding to Cuellar, Michael Kostelnik, the retired Air Force general who directs the Office of Air and Marine (OAM) at the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, assured the subcommittee that the video streams from the Predators and Guardians could “support all state and local contingencies.”
Kostelnik explained that the video is sent to OAM’s operational center in Riverside, California for data analysis. From OAM’s operational and intelligence center, the data and analysis goes to the Border Patrol and to “actually a wide variety of users,” said Kostelnik. “Some of it could go to any one of our intel functions. We can stream the video sometimes to some of the DOD components in concert with other missions,” he said.
With respect to this issue of the multiple functionality of CBP drones, Kostelnik told the Los Angeles Times that Predators are flown “in many areas around the country, not only for federal operators, but also for state and local law enforcement and emergency responders in times of crisis.” The FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration have also used Predators for other domestic investigations, according to this news report.
DHS has not provided a record of incidents when its drones support local law enforcement. Nor does the department have guidelines or regulations to ensure that civil liberties and privacy are not violated by such operations. No guidelines exist to ensure that the surveillance of the borderlands doesn’t violate the privacy of the region’s residents.
One CBP drone incident involved the Grand Rapids SWAT team, which on June 23, 2011 summoned drone support from the local military base to provide aerial surveillance of an armed standoff with a suspected cattle rustler near Lakota, North Dakota. According to Bill Macki, the chief of the SWAT team, the police have had a cooperative relationship with the drone program for three years, although this was the first arrest in which Predator was involved.
Local police in Grand Rapids told the Los Angeles Times that in the last six months of 2011 they that had “called” for drone surveillance two dozen times or more. Sometimes, however, Predators stay grounded, said officer Macki, pointing to the time when “gusty weather conditions” prevented the launch of the drone in response to a police request.
The Obama administration has strongly opposed — including taking legal action against — immigration and border enforcement initiatives by state and local governments, arguing that these are federal responsibilities.
At the same time, however, the administration has gone further than any previous administration in encouraging that state and local governments collaborate with CBP and with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in federally initiated programs.
The administration fosters this collaboration through programs as such as Secure Communities and Operation Stonegarden. Increasingly, CBP, and ICE agents also assist local law enforcement agencies at the request of those agencies, especially but not exclusively in what are regarded as emergencies such as prison riots or forest fires.
Based on this increasingly close cooperation between local law enforcement agencies and DHS’s border and immigration agencies, it is not surprising that CBP would start deploying its drones for local law enforcement operations in areas around the military bases where CBP stations its UAVs.
The Congressional Caucus on Unmanned Systems, commonly known as the “Drone Caucus,” is promoting drone proliferation among local law enforcement agencies. The caucus sponsored a Capitol Hill panel in mid-2012 about the challenges of using UAVs in law enforcement. A caucus press release observed that the FAA Authorization Bill of 2012 (in which the FAA is required to facilitate the full integration of UAVs into national airspace by September 2015) will “unlock the incredible potential of the UAS technology” for law enforcement.
According to the caucus press release, “[U]nmanned systems provide an affordable solution to law enforcement agencies who want to supplement or start-up aerial operations within their organization.” Congressman Buck McKeon, the California Republican who founded the drone caucus, said: “Law enforcement agencies along with broad support from the general public recognize the true value of unmanned systems and their ability to provide law enforcement exceptional situational awareness at a substantially lower cost, minimizing the risks they face in protecting the people they serve.”
Henry Cuellar, the Texas Democrat from Laredo who cochairs the drone caucus, told the panel: “Unmanned systems are a rapidly evolving technology with tremendous potential to extend our current operations and resources to keep Americans safe and cement our nation’s place as a leader in technology and innovation.”