Weaponized drones… in North Dakota?


By Chelsea Byers

In August 2015, lawmakers in North Dakota announced plans to arm drones for police use with ‘less-than-lethal’ weapons including tasers, rubber-bullets, and tear gas. This decision makes North Dakota the first US state to authorize weaponized drone use, giving precedents - along with model legislation - to fast-track similar legislation through states in 2016.

There is nothing new about the use of unmanned aircraft as a foreign policy band-aid. US taxpayers began funding a deadly military drones program in Afghanistan and Pakistan just five months after September 11, 2001. Despite top-level intelligence, US drone strikes in the region have caused thousands of civilian deaths.

And surveillance drones have monitored the US/Mexico border from 2005-2013 at a cost of $360 million. General Atomics , a leading drone manufacturer, has upped its lobbying budget by 20% and is pushing for further military spending in the border region despite outstanding questions of the program’s effectiveness.

‘Less than lethal’ - in the case of these new domestic drones - is seriously questionable, considering the 39 deaths caused by tasers this year alone. Consider implications of other ‘non-lethal’ weapons and their misuse. Rubber bullets and tear gas canisters have maimed dozens in crowd control by cops. 

To be fair, North Dakota Representative Rick Becker’s original intent in drafting this legislation was not to send weapons soaring high into the skies, but rather to protect individuals against unlawful searches by requiring a judge to issue a warrant for intended surveillance usage. The original text of the bill even went as far as banning all weapons on police drones — until Bruce Burkett of the North Dakota Peace Officer Association, a lobbyist representing law enforcement, got his hands on it.

North Dakota is not free from issues of excessive police force. In August, students on campus were held at gunpoint by officers who mistook a telescope for a gun, and the use of drone surveillance landed put the wrong guy in prison. Police officers know that they if they make a mistake, they might be wounded or even killed, or face legal consequences. Drones, by contrast, do not. Where is the built-in check on their deployment? As public awareness and concern about militarization of police trends grow, people also bring a new level of questioning around accountability for police work including the use of drones.

With the manufacturing cost of drones significantly decreasing in recent yearsand the powers-that-be making therules, it seemed only a matter of time that corporations seeking market expansion would encourage the domestic adoption of unmanned aircraft on a larger scale. 

And North Dakota seemed ready to pass a bill expanding the drones market. The state’s four-year university offers a degree in unmanned aircraft operations and the state economyhas largely benefitted from the expansion of this industry. Northrop Grumman hails North Dakota as “The Land of Opportunity for Drones” and has proved it by investing $10 million in expansion, research and development at Grand Sky Aviation Park.  An effort to curb the industry’s growth would no doubt be a hard-fought battle.

Strangely enough though, drones businesses and the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce spoke out against the bill, arguing that the use of weapons may stigmatize the growing industry altogether. So what motivated lawmakers to move ahead?

Five of the 12 bill sponsors (Ruby, Thoreson, Klemin, Kasper, Boehning) are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, and 4 of those 5 hold leadership positions on task forces. ALEC works as a ‘bill mill’ pumping out legislation with a conservative agenda, giving further likelihood to this bill’s victory and to similar legislation in ALEC-run states this coming cycle.

Backed by police and lawmakers, these weaponized drones look to be a policy temptation for law enforcement in legislative cycles to come. These remotely controlled weapons systems may create a slew of new complications and threats to citizen safety and privacy that must be addressed. As organizers combat excessive force in the streets, we must not lose sight of the tactics and strategies used to transition police equipment from one form of militarization to another, including in the skies.

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