Police in the United States have begun to use of drones for surveillance, as indicated on this interactive map prepared in 2013 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. http://www.governing.com/gov-data/safety-justice/drones-state-local-law-enforcement-agencies-license-list.html

The Library of Congress report Drones in Domestic Surveillance Operations: Fourth Amendment Implications and Legislative Responses https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R42701.pdf cautions, however,  that the relatively low cost of drone surveillance compared to putting larger numbers of officers on patrol “may significantly reduce budgetary concerns that once checked the government from widespread surveillance.”

The report notes:

“Currently, drones can be outfitted with high-powered cameras, thermal imaging devices, license plate readers, and laser radar (LADAR).  In the near future, law enforcement organizations might seek to outfit drones with facial recognition or soft biometric recognition which can recognize individuals based on attributes such as height, age, gender, and skin color.”

In some cases, police are buying drones that can be armed.  http://readersupportednews.org/news-section2/316-20/8187-new-texas-police-drone-could-carry-weapons  Taser International is considering supplying police with drones armed with their stun guns. http://www.investopedia.com/news/taser-eyeing-drone-market-tasr/

Christof Heyns, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killing and summary or arbitrary executions, raises concern in an October 2014 U.N. report about the “increased depersonalization of the use of force through unmanned systems.”

He notes that Desert Wolf, a South African company, is producing the Skunk Riot Control Copter drone, designed to dump pepper spray on protesters. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/20/pepper-spray-drone-offered-south-african-mines-strike-control  He mentions also the Shadowhawk drone, intended for police, produced in the U.S. by Vanguard Defense Industries, owned by Lockheed Martin.  The Shadowhawk can be equipped with 25 mm or 40 mm grenade launchers or a 12 gauge shotgun. http://www.uavglobal.com/shadowhawk/

Police Shadowhawk drone. Vanguard Defense Industries

Police Shadowhawk drone. Vanguard Defense Industries

Heynes raises further concern about “autonomous” police drones, “unmanned weapons with on-board computers that, once activated, can select and engage targets with no further human intervention.” 

“Serious consideration needs to be given,” Heyn says, “to whether unmanned systems, in particular autonomous weapons systems used in the context of law enforcement, whether with lethal or less lethal force, can be considered lawful weapons per se.”

Charlottesville, VA and Syracuse, NY are among a few communities that have taken on responsibility to control police use of drones.  http://www.nbc29.com/story/20963560/charlottesville-city-council-passes-anti-drone-resolution

http://warisacrime.org/content/syracuse-fifth-city-pass-anti-drone-resolution

The Bill of Rights Defense Committee has prepared two versions of local legislation to control police use of drones. http://bordc.org/resource/stop-drones-model-ordinances/

This type of legislation is critical to protecting individual and community rights, rights that include the right to free speech and right to assemble, rights likely to violated by police and/or military surveillance unless specific controls are established locally.

For example, the Baltimore police secretly hired a contractor to do aerial surveillance in the city using equipment that could monitor a 32 square mile area without notifying the public, a move that a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union called “beyond astounding”.

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-secret-surveillance-20160824-story.html

White Plains, New York police used a surveillance drone at a march in July 2016 organized by local pastors to try to smooth relations between the African-American communities and police over police shootings.  In a phone interview with Nick Mottern, Coordinator of Knowdrones.com, the White Plains chief of police refused to confirm whether police had used the drone even though it was seen by many at the march, saying essentially that this was none of the public’s business.

What is believed to be a White Plains, NY, police drone being used at a White Plains rally in July, 2016.  Photo by Sue McAnanama.

What is believed to be a White Plains, NY, police drone being used at a White Plains rally in July, 2016.  Photo by Sue McAnanama.

Finally, the Air National Guard is flying Reaper drones in upstate New York State in and around Syracuse’s Hancock Air National Guard Base and Fort Drum, a U.S. Army base near Watertown, which also has hosted a Grey Eagle drone squadron.  Local anti-drone war organizers are concerned that military drone operators may be sharing surveillance information with local police and that this shared information may be one day be used to suppress public assembly and free speech.