It is now legal for law enforcement in North Dakota to fly drones armed with everything from Tasers to tear gas thanks to a last-minute push by a pro-police lobbyist.
With all the concern over the militarization of police in the past year, no one noticed that the state became the first in the union to allow police to equip drones with “less than lethal” weapons. House Bill 1328 wasn’t drafted that way, but then a lobbyist representing law enforcement—tight with a booming drone industry—got his hands on it.
The bill’s stated intent was to require police to obtain a search warrant from a judge in order to use a drone to search for criminal evidence. In fact, the original draft of Rep. Rick Becker’s bill would have banned all weapons on police drones.
Then Bruce Burkett of North Dakota Peace Officer’s Association was allowed by the state house committee to amend HB 1328 and limit the prohibition only to lethal weapons. “Less than lethal” weapons like rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas, sound cannons, and Tasers are therefore permitted on police drones.
Becker, the bill’s Republican sponsor, said he had to live with it.
“This is one I’m not in full agreement with. I wish it was any weapon,” he said at a hearing in March. “In my opinion there should be a nice, red line: Drones should not be weaponized. Period.”
Even “less than lethal” weapons can kill though. At least 39 people have been killed by police Tasers in 2015 so far, according to The Guardian. Bean bags, rubber bullets, and flying tear gas canisters have also maimed, if not killed, in the U.S. and abroad.
Becker said he worried about police firing on criminal suspects remotely, not unlike U.S. Air Force pilots who bomb the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS from more than 5,000 miles away.
“When you’re not on the ground, and you’re making decisions, you’re sort of separate,” Becker said in March. “Depersonalized.”
Drones have been in use for decades by the military, but their high prices have prevented police departments from obtaining them until recently. Money’s no problem for the the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department, though: A California manufacturer loaned them two drones.
Grand Forks County Sheriff Bob Rost said his department’s drones are only equipped with cameras and he doesn’t think he should need a warrant to go snooping.
“It was a bad bill to start with,” Rost told The Daily Beast. “We just thought the whole thing was ridiculous.”
Rost said he needs to use drones for surveillance in order to obtain a warrant in the first place.
“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” Becker remembered opponents like Rost saying.
Yet the sheriff’s department is hiding a full accounting of how many drone missions they’ve flown since 2012. Records requests by The Daily Beast were initially denied by the sheriff because they would “cost a fortune,” and were only handed over after an appeal to the state’s attorney general’s office.
The sheriff and lobbyists assured lawmakers that drones would only be used in non-criminal situations, like the search for a missing person or to photograph an accident scene. What they didn’t mention was the 2011 arrest of Rodney Brossart, a cattle thief who was caught by a Department of Homeland Security drone.
When a few cows wandered onto his land, Brossart refused to take them back to their owner, his neighbor. The neighbor called the police and the situation turned into a 16-hour standoff. Fearful of entering his ranch without knowing where Brossart was, police asked Homeland Security to redirect a Predator searching the border with Canada.
The drone meant to find drug smugglers instead found Brossart—on his own property—and he was arrested.
Law enforcement wasn’t the only one who disapproved of the legislation. A representative from the North Dakota Department of Commerce, the vice president of an economic development group, the founder of a drone company, and the director of the University of North Dakota’s drone major program all testified against the bill.
Why would a bunch of business types want to stop something like warrants for drones?
“I think when you’re trying to stimulate an industry in your state, you don’t want things that would potentially have a chilling effect on [drone] manufacturers,” said Al Frazier, a Grand Forks sheriff’s deputy who pilots the drones.
Organizations like the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International track legislation, especially any laws that appear to limit drone “development,” according to Keith Lund of the Grand Forks Regional Economic Development Corporation.
“Requiring a search warrant for surveillance is ‘restricting development?’” asked Rep. Gary Paur, a Republican, at a hearing.
“It’s really all about the commercial development, which is where all of this is heading,” Lund replied. “If [a law] is somehow limiting commercial, law enforcement development… that is a negative in terms of companies looking and investing in opportunities in the state of North Dakota,” Lund said.
In other words, limit civil liberties so Big Drone can spread its wings.
Drones in North Dakota are a profitable enterprise in a state hit hard by the oil bust. Companies that market machines for agricultural and commercial use have been popping up in industrial parks on the outskirts of Grand Forks for the better part of the last three years. The university, one of the city’s largest employers, even offers a four-year degree in drones. The Air Force has partnered with the private sector to create a drone research and development park, too.
Read more: The Daily Beast