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 Representative Rick Becker's bill would have banned all weapons on police drones.
Then Bruce Burkett of the 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. – The Daily Beast, Aug. 26, 2015
The technology that lets unmanned U.S. drones blow up alleged "enemy combatants" in the Middle East is coming home. U.S. police departments, which already embraced drones for surveillance purposes, now want to deploy weapons on them.
North Dakota's legislature officially authorized the state's police departments to mount non-lethal weapons on drones. Will lethal ones be next? Of course. Government power, once granted, always expands.
Non-lethal police drones will be bad enough. Police departments will use them to enforce petty laws and keep the public on edge. The chilling effect on any kind of public protest when police drones are buzzing overhead is undeniable, as we saw in Atlanta during the Ferguson protests. Maybe they will only observe, but the crowds won't know that. All they will see is a flying object that could emit tear gas at any second, pepper spray, as police have access to in India, or plastic bullets or "blinding lasers."
It is also worth noting that supposedly "non-lethal" weapons can kill. The Guardian's police killing tracker shows at least 39 Taser deaths in the U.S. so far in 2015. All occurred when the officer was in close proximity to the victim. Look for the rate to increase sharply when police begin shocking people by remote control.
Once police gain comfort with such semi-lethal drones, adding kill capability will be only a matter of time. The logic will sound compelling. Just as bomb disposal teams protect themselves by sending robots into dangerous situations, drones will let SWAT teams execute no-knock raids and hostage rescues without placing human police at risk.
Sufficiently advanced drone technology could obviate the need for human police to go anywhere at all. They can stay safe at HQ, just like U.S. Air Force drone pilots "fly" over the Middle East from stateside bases. "Please hold your driver's license up to the scanner, ma'am," might be what you hear from the drone hovering beside your vehicle.
Eventually that step will disappear, too, as artificial intelligence renders human police redundant. Police drones will report to a police supercomputer that will decide which humans deserve to die.
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