Largest consortium of police officials says use of unmanned aircraft should be restricted; vehicles should not be armed; Congressional Research Service flags major constitutional concerns

Steve Watson
Sept 13, 2012

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the biggest union of law officials in the US, has issued guidelines calling for a reassessment of the potential widespread use of aerial drones for domestic policing.

The Association’s national advisory for the use of unmanned aircraft notes that more and more departments across the nation are considering turning to drones to conduct search and rescue operations, traffic accident scene mapping and surveillance activities.

The federal government is in the process of rolling out new rules on the use of the unmanned drones, with the FAA announcing procedures will “streamline” the process through which government agencies, including local law enforcement, receive licenses to operate the aircraft.

Critics have warned that the FAA has not acted to establish any safeguards whatsoever, and that congress is not holding the agency to account.

The IACP advisory notes that police should, in all cases, acquire search warrants before using drones for any activity that may “intrude upon reasonable expectations of privacy,”

As we have previously reported, some police departments have expressed a willingness to arm drones with rubber bullets and tear gas.

Don Roby, chairman of the IACP’s aviation committee noted in comments to USA Today, that in the face of such plans, the advisory represent an “urgent” call to limit the use of drones.

“It’s very important that people understand that we won’t be up there with armed predator drones firing away,” said Roby, who also is a Baltimore Police Department captain. “Everytime you hear someone talking about the use of these vehicles, it’s always in the context of a military operation. That’s not what we’re talking about.”

“Equipping the aircraft with weapons of any type is strongly discouraged.” notes the advisory.

“Given the current state of the technology, the ability to effectively deploy weapons from a small UA (un-manned aircraft) is doubtful … (and) public acceptance of airborne use of force is likewise doubtful and could result in unnecessary community resistance to the program.” the advisory further states.

While the guidelines are certainly encouraging, the ACLU argues that they are not satisfactory on their own.

“We don’t think these recommendations go far enough to ensure true protection of privacy from drones,” the ACLU said in a statement, adding that privacy protections should be written into law, as has been suggested by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, rather than “merely promulgated by the police themselves.”

FAA documents recently obtained and released by the Electronic Frontier Foundation have confirmed that the roll out of domestic unmanned drones will, for the most part, be focused solely on the mass surveillance of the American people. In a report, EPIC recently noted:

With some exceptions, drone flights in the U.S. have been all about developing and testing surveillance technology.  The North Little Rock Police Department, for instance, wrote that their SR30 helicopter-type drone “can carry day zoom cameras, infrared cameras, or both simultaneously.”

Not to be outdone, the Seattle Police Department’s drone comes with four separate cameras, offering thermal infrared video, low light “dusk-dawn” video, and a 1080p HD video camera attachment.

The Miami-Dade Police Department and Texas Department of Public Safety have employed drones capable of both daytime and nighttime video cameras, and according to the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Certificate of Authorization (COA) paperwork, their drone was to be employed in support of “critical law enforcement operations.”

However, the FAA didn’t just rubber stamp all drone requests. For example, the Ogden Police Departmentwanted to use its “nocturnal surveillance airship [aka blimp] . . . for law enforcement surveillance of high crime areas of Ogden City.” The FAA disapproved the request, finding Odgen’s proposed use “presents an unacceptable high risk to the National Airspace System (NAS).”

Furthermore, thousands of pages of FAA experimental drone flight records that were obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) detail just how complicated and risky it would be to operate thousands of unmanned arial vehicles safely without spending billions of dollars.

Another report released last week, by the Congressional Research Service found that “the prospect of drone use inside the United States raises far-reaching issues concerning the extent of government surveillance authority, the value of privacy in the digital age, and the role of Congress in reconciling these issues.”

“Police officers who were once relegated to naked eye observations may soon have, or in some cases already possess, the capability to see through walls or track an individual’s movements from the sky,” the report notes. “One might question, then: What is the proper balance between the necessity of the government to keep people safe and the privacy needs of individuals?”

The “ability to closely monitor an individual’s movements with pinpoint accuracy may raise more significant constitutional concerns than some other types of surveillance technology,” CRS says.

“Unless a meaningful distinction can be made between drone surveillance and more traditional forms of government tracking,” the report notes, “existing jurisprudence suggests that a reviewing court would likely uphold drone surveillance conducted with no individualized suspicion when conducted for purposes other than strict law enforcement.”

Following intense lobbying, almost exclusively by defense contractors, Congress recently passed legislation paving the way for what the FAA predicts will be somewhere in the region of 30,000 drones in operation in US skies by 2020.


Steve Watson is the London based writer and editor for Alex Jones’, and He has a Masters Degree in International Relations from the School of Politics at The University of Nottingham in England.

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