Connecticut’s legislature is currently considering a bill that would make the state the first in the nation to allow its cops to use deadly drones in police work.
Now, presumably the legislators are not picturing the New Haven Police Department availing themselves of full-scale Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles, but a sniping set-up certainly seems to be on the table. “Obviously this is for very limited circumstances,” said one state senator who supports the bill. “We can certainly envision some incident on some campus or someplace where someone is a rogue shooter or someone was kidnapped and you try to blow out a tire.”
Connecticut is not the first state to confront this question of cops and drones. Maine and Virginia answered it by making it illegal for police to use weaponized drones (five other states — Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, and Wisconsin — banned armed drone use for everyone, police included). In North Dakota, however, lawmakers banned lethal weapons on drones but permitted non-lethal ones like stun guns or tear gas dispensers. (Of course, a weapon need not be designed to be lethal to end up killing someone.)
Civil libertarians quickly and correctly raised the alarm over the Connecticut bill. “We’re not in warfare here,” said the Connecticut ACLU’s David McGuire. Drone operation produces “a level of separation that makes it almost video game like where [cops are] detached from the actual situation,” he added, raising a point the legislation’s supporters seem eager to ignore: Good intentions are not the same as good results.
That state senator I quoted above envisions the drones being used to stop “a rogue shooter” or kidnapper at a school. It’s a compelling image, and obviously, we all want such dangerous situations resolved as speedily and safely as possible.
But if history is any guide, that’s not how these weapons would come to be used. Consider what happened with SWAT teams, which I covered at The Week two years ago (emphasis added):
SWAT team use has spiked from around 3,000 strikes per year in 1980 to as many as 80,000 raids a year now. A battering ram or other forced-entry device is used in two-thirds of these raids, nearly 80 percent of which target private homes … The great bulk of SWAT raids are in service of the drug war, though nearly four out of 10 find no contraband at all.
Other SWAT team excursions are far more mundane missions. For example, a SWAT team was deployed in Fairfax, Virginia, to take down an optometrist guilty of nothing worse than making bets on football games with an undercover officer he believed to be his friend. The gambling hobbyist was killed during the raid even though he made no violent gestures and was not armed. …
Ironically, SWAT teams are rarely used for one thing: their original purpose of dealing with extremely unsafe barricade and hostage situations, like violent bank robberies. Indeed, only 7 percent of SWAT raids today address this type of danger.
Just like weaponized drones, SWAT teams were introduced as a way of handling unusual and highly dangerous situations. The intention was good. The results, however, have been disastrous, as SWAT teams are now used to raid unlicensed barbershops and chicken coops. (Seriously, those are both real life examples.)
Does anyone really doubt we’ll see a similar mission creep with deadly drones?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting Connecticut police are in some evil lair cackling at the prospect of mowing down ordinary citizens from the air. Not at all.
I’m simply saying that police should not be armed with weapons of war, and militarized policing is a dangerous game to play in our communities. As one commentator wrote during the Ferguson protests of 2014, “Give a man access to drones, tanks, and body armor, and he’ll reasonably think that his job isn’t simply to maintain peace but to eradicate danger. Instead of protecting and serving, police are searching and destroying.”
That’s not an anti-police statement – it’s just an observation of human nature.
Maine and Virginia have the right idea in banning armed police drones outright, and Connecticut should reverse course and follow suit. Policing via actual death robots has no place in a free society.
If you live in Connecticut, here’s how to contact your state legislator.