The Future of Drones and Policing

Written by: Adrian Arcoleo

In a previous article, I discussed the threat of drone technologies co-opted by terrorist organizations. Bad actors, however, are not the only ones who are acquiring drone technology. Drones are becoming increasingly prevalent in police departments around the world. These departments claim drones will allow them to more effectively fight crime and respond to emergency situations, but is that how they will be used in the future?

This was the stated benefit that our own Madison Police Department volunteered when they acquired three quadcopter drones in December 2016. They have used these drones to find fugitives and missing persons and to document crime scenes. They have even established reasonable standard operating procedures that work to create a balance between protecting citizen privacy, maintaining need for search warrants, and utilizing the drones effectively to assist officers. There is even a clause that no drone will be armed in any way.

While our own city police attempt to assure us that their drones won’t be used for any nefarious or potentially illegal purpose, the same cannot be said for all police departments. Even when we pull our view away from the local area of Madison, Wisconsin to just the United States, things start to look a little more troubling.

Back in 2015, North Dakota passed House Bill 1328, which legalized the mounting of non-lethal weapons onto drones. The bill’s original intent was to require a warrant for the use of drones to search for criminal evidence and to outright ban weapons of any kind to be mounted onto a drone. After heavy lobbying for and against both points of the bill, it eventually passed. It  only outlawed the use of lethal weapons, while still leaving tasers, rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas, and other non-lethal options available.

Just because this technology is legal doesn’t mean it will be used. Many non-lethal options are impractical to mount onto a drone and, as of writing this article, there are no known cases of non-lethal weapons being deployed by drones in the United States. But what about outside the United States?

If we zoom out even further, we are able to examine the evolution of drone technology in other parts of the world and how that might affect drone usage in the United States. In March of 2018, Israel became the first country to employ tear gas from drones against Gaza protesters. Following that event, the Israeli government used it sporadically until May of the same year, when the United States opened an embassy in Jerusalem. In response to the subsequent protests, Israel employed tear gas again from drones more frequently and in greater quantity, using both aerosolized forms as well as dropping canisters of tear gas.

So why, when North Dakota had legalized the tactic of non-lethal drone operations as early as 2015 were they not first employed until 2018 in Israel? It wasn’t for the lack of lobbying interests, that’s for sure. The reality is, the development evolved out of a basic tactical need for the Israeli Defense Force to employ them. Faced with massive amounts of protestors, some using dangerous tactics to target Israeli citizens and IDF personnel, the IDF felt that employing tear gas at a distance using drones would effectively disperse crowds while simultaneously keeping IDF members safe behind their walls and barricades.

What this means for policing is that we likely won’t see police organizations jumping into this technology immediately or even in the near future. Instead it will be a gradual case of “mission creep” as departments acquire this technology and then use it in ways either previously not considered or in new ways to protect law enforcement officers. To deploy tear gas against a crowd, why move your police line right next to the protestors or rioters when you can deploy it at a greater distance and protect their own officers. Why hunt for a dangerous fugitive when you can use a drone instead?

This sort of mission creep is exactly what happened in Dallas in 2016. There, after a several hours-long standoff, the Dallas PD used an EOD robot to carry and detonate explosives next to a shooter after deeming it was too dangerous for SWAT officers to intervene themselves. When the Dallas PD acquired the robot, no one was concerned that the Dallas PD would be using it to kill people in the near future. Instead, the capability was derived out of the tactical need to protect officers from harm. The ACLU even warned against this type of mission creep as early as 2011.

So when will we be seeing swarms of suicide drones racing through buildings killing active shooters and taser drones running down fleeing fugitives? Well, hopefully never. As the Madison Police department has shown with their operating procedures, there is a willingness by some in the police community to use this technology responsibly. However, not all policing entities will react the same, as is shown by the Israelis in their omni-present tensions with the Palestinians.

When it comes to forecasting the developments of these drone technologies in policing, and the procedures used to deploy them, we should look to the countries and departments that have both the tactical necessity and the lack of legal or moral restrictions that would stop them. Places that suffer from constant strife will be the places that develop these technologies.

This has been true when it comes to the exploitation of drone technology by terrorists and state actors. Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Israel, have been at the leading edge of drone technologies. The events that occur in these locations (and locations similar to them) are where we should look for emerging trends. Additionally, we should be looking at countries where there is no aversion to spying on or suppressing their citizens. China, for example has the technological capability, and doesn’t mind liberal use of tear gas or looking over the shoulders of their citizens.

While these are the most likely locations that drone technologies might evolve, it can happen anywhere. The utility of a drone is readily apparent to most police departments around the world, as shown by their increased use. It will become increasingly important for citizens around the world to promote privacy and transparency and work against the further weaponization of drones. They have a profound capability to spur economic development, as well as fight crime. Hopefully, the technology will be used responsibly in the coming years.