In 2015, North Dakota became the first state to pass a law allowing law enforcement to use weaponized drones. According to National Public Radio (NPR), this law requires that the weapons be non-lethal, such as tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and other weapons that the government classifies as safe.
A proponent of the original bill, Republican State Representative Rick Becker, said the bill did not turn out how he wanted. “In my opinion, there should be a nice, red line: drones should not be weaponized,” Becker said. He also said he had to compromise on the weapon issue of the law to make it so police will need a search warrant to use a drone.
For the time being, it sounds like police will only be using drones to apprehend those suspected of crimes and they’ll need a warrant. But in an age when privacy is a big concern to many Americans, I understand if this makes people a little uncomfortable. To me, this sounds like the precursor to a dystopian future where our lives are monitored by the government with a sky filled of drones.
While that may be an extreme assumption, people have worried about government surveillance for years. Take the book “1984” by George Orwell, a story all about citizens under a totalitarian regime monitored by small cameras in their TV screens. It’s eerie how similar this is to some actual, modern government practices.
Edward Snowden revealed that the government is certainly tracking what we look at online, certain phone conversations, possibly even text messages and emails. There are people in Washington who can see your entire life through a computer or phone if they wanted to. President Barack Obama said in a 2014 speech on National Security Agency reforms “if any individual who objects to government policy can take it into their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe or conduct foreign policy.” Obama tells us this surveillance is necessary to our national security. That seems reasonable, but it’s not crazy to think that having the ability to watch almost anyone in the country is leading us down a bad path, especially in an increasingly digital world.
But let’s pretend drones aren’t a precursor to anything and get back to the issue at hand. The people of North Dakota were lucky to get a law, which requires the police to have a warrant to use a drone. As far as the issue of weapons being used on drones, we already have a good amount of police brutality problems this year. Imagine the backlash the police will get when someone becomes injured or even killed by a drone. According to the Washington Post, at least 48 people died in police incidents involving tasers last year, showing that what the government deems “non-lethal” is not always correct.
Police brutality is a more prevalent issue in the United States than in any other country. Many police officers in the United Kingdom don’t even carry guns. According to The Guardian, Iceland has only had one fatal police shooting in its entire 71-year history. All of this points to the fact the police in the U.S. are simply overly-militarized.
So the biggest piece of evidence against the police using drones, besides the spying issue, is the question: do the police really need drones? I recognize there are many situations when a drone could come in handy for police, but imagine all the backlash it will create when someone is attacked from the air by a drone. Is it worth it?
Elliot Weld can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org