BISMARCK, N.D. (CN) – Fargo police say they have “no intention of weaponizing drones” though North Dakota has become the first state to allow it, so long as the weapons are not “lethal.”
One police lieutenant says he’s “perplexed” why the Legislature even enacted the law.
House Bill 1328 legalized weaponized drones for police use and surveillance. Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed the bill into law in April, three years after Rep. Rick Becker first introduced it. Both are Republicans.
Becker said his original purpose was to require police to get warrants before they could use drones to conduct surveillance on private citizens. The original bill, in 2013, prohibited weaponizing drones “in any fashion,” Becker told National Public Radio.
After he re-introduced the bill this year, it was amended to prohibit only lethal weapons. Becker told NPR the bill was amended because “law enforcement lobbyists” asked “to remove the prohibition on nonlethal weapons, and that, in fact, is what was done.”
Fargo police Lt. Michael Mitchell told Courthouse News his department is “perplexed, because we don’t see many reasons why we would use such technology.”
“It can take over two years to get FAA certification just to fly these things. It may be something for the long range, but for now we aren’t even looking at it,” Mitchell said.
North Dakota Peace Officers Association President Michael Reitan said the law is somewhat ambiguous. Rubber bullets or beanbags could be categorized as non-lethal, though they have the potential to inflict lethal harm.
“Weapons actually come in three different types of category – lethal, which everyone is familiar with as far as a handgun,” Reitan told NPR. “Less than lethal are those weapons that fire rubber bullets, beanbags, that type of thing – not meant to be lethal, but they could be.
“And then there’s non-lethal, and we talked about pepper spray. My interpretation of the way the bill is written – when it says lethal weapons are prohibited, it would be both the less lethal and the lethal weapons.”
The ACLU calls police use of weaponized drones “a terrible idea.”
“Drones make it too easy to use force,” and “‘Non-lethal’ weapons aren’t actually non-lethal,” the ACLU said in an Aug. 27 statement. It also objected that the bill will “open the door to increasing weaponization,” “increase the militarization of police,” and that the increased distance of weapons shot from drones makes them inaccurate.
At least three states – Oregon, Virginia and Wisconsin – have prohibited any sorts of weapons on drones.
The Fargo Police Department told Courthouse News: “This technology may be useful for search and rescue operations as it would save a lot of man hours, but the Fargo Police have no intention of weaponizing drones or using them for surveillance, especially since we live in such a rural area.”
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