If lawmakers have their way, police in one US state could soon be using drones as lethal weapons against the citizens they're supposed to protect. On Thursday, Connecticut's judiciary committee approved a new drone regulation bill that, if passed, would make it the first US state to let cops use deadly drones later this year.
Titled "An Act Concerning the Use and Regulation of Drones", the bill effectively bans weaponised drones for everyone in the state except for police officers, permitting them to use drones equipped with tear gas, incendiary and explosive devices and "remote deadly weapons".
"Obviously this is for very limited circumstances," State Senator John Kissel told the AP. "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."
If ratified, the new bill will go into effect in October, but agencies won't be required to come up with a model policy of best use (which would identify, with specificity, when weaponised drones should be deployed) until January of next year. This provision is particularly concerning, effectively allowing police to shoot first and ask questions later. Officers are encouraged to have training before they use the drones, but the bill permits officers to obtain specialised training up to 30 days after use. David McGuire, executive director of the state ACLU, told Gizmodo that's beside the point.
"This is such a novel and misguided idea that there is no training for this," McGuire said. "Weaponised drones are not used for local law enforcement, they're used by the military."
Kissel used the example of rogue shooters, but it remains unclear exactly what type of incident would require tear gas versus lethal force. In Texas, for example, police used a robot armed with a bomb to kill a sniper who fatally shot five police officers during a Black Lives Matter protest. Dallas Police Chief David Brown told press that his department "saw no other option" given the threat to officers. McGuire worries that relying too heavily on technology distances officers from the people they're trying to protect.
"We worry that it becomes almost video game-like, in that the officer is now potentially hundreds of feet removed from the person they're interacting with," he said. "And instead of pulling a trigger on a Taser or a gun, they're pressing a button the screen."
According to McGuire, when speaking with officers one-on-one, he doesn't get the sense that they feel either overwhelmed or ill-equipped to police people without drone assistance. "We've seen nothing that necessitates this," he said.
Police drones in the US aren't exactly new. In 2015, North Dakota passed a bill allowing police to use armed drones, but, unlike Connecticut, limited them to "less lethal" weapons like rubber bullets and tear gas. A 2014 report from the Physicians for Human Rights and International Network of Civil Liberties Organisations, however, found that tear gas and rubber bullets can still be lethal, particularly when used against crowds. McGuire told Gizmodo that the media has reported 18 deaths via non-lethal Taser guns in Connecticut alone. There's no measure in the Connecticut bill that prevents the use of lethal drones against crowds or protestors, merely requiring police to suspect a serious crime is being committed first.
When it comes to civilian drones, on the other hand, police have framed their presence at demonstrations as risk to public safety. Last December, protesters rallying against the Dakota Access Pipeline used aerial drones to record footage of officers using water canons to disperse protesters. The US Federal Aviation Administration blocked drone usage overnight, preventing journalists from recording footage. A similar ban was issued in 2014 in Ferguson in response to protests following the murder of Michael Brown.
Whether the bill becomes law or not, officers already have a vast technical array of tools for policing — from drone surveillance to biometric profiles, massive face recognition programs, and predictive policing — meaning the issues surrounding "cyborg" police officers (and the attempts by civil libertarians to rein them) aren't going anywhere soon.