This morning, Bruce Schneier’s blog linked to a story about police in Montgomery County, Texas (north of Houston) buying a UAV capable of carrying weapons. The purchase was made via a $300,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security.
This is the first police force in the United States capable of deploying a weaponized drone–in this case a small helicopter model, the ShadowHawk from Vanguard Defense Industries. The drone is capable of carrying a variety of weapons, including tazers and beanbag shot. In the article, Montgomery County police say, “[I]t will be used in chases of escaping criminals and tracking drug shipments.”
The article notes that the Government Accountability Office released a 73-page report in 2008 that “raised issues about police drones endangering airspace for small planes or even commercial airliners.” Drone pilots may have difficulty avoiding other planes during an emergency, or even buildings, wires, and other obstacles as the pilot’s attention is largely focused downward on the suspect(s). Schneier goes even further, saying, “Why does anyone think this is a good idea . . . I’m sure it works much better in the movies than it does in real life.”
I have to agree with Schneier. The militarization of local law enforcement is a troubling trend. Why must every local police force have a SWAT team equipped with the latest military hand-me-downs? In some jurisdictions, are these teams really necessary? Police forces will often feel compelled to use these teams. But, reports of SWAT-style entries into homes that produce deadly mistakes seem to be increasing.
Additionally, non-lethal weapons are not always non-lethal. The drone manufacturer even calls them “less lethal systems,” implicitly conceding the point. Tazers can kill, and beanbag shot has also killed victims. This has been the case when well-trained police officers personally use these weapons. What will happen when an officer removed from the scene uses the weapons?
Even the reasons the Texas police cite to justify use of the drone do not withstand much scrutiny. As for the first, “chasing of escaping criminals,” why not simply use full-size helicopters, as is traditionally the case? Yes, they are more expensive, but they can also carry two-men teams: a pilot and an officer to control the camera while reporting the suspect’s movements to other officers. This seems like a safer distribution of duties. Additionally, while helicopters can disperse tear gas, this is not a targeted weapon. If a well-trained officer will have difficulty firing and hitting his target (still or moving) from a helicopter, why does this police force think a drone pilot sitting remotely can hit his target when firing a weapon from a drone?
As for the second reason, “tracking drug shipments,” why is a weaponized drone necessary? If the purpose is surveillance, this might be a good idea, as a small drone might avoid detection more easily than a helicopter. But weapons would be unnecessary. Such a mission would really only require sensors and recording devices.
I’m afraid the Texas police want this drone because it seems cool. I do not think it will be a practical or effective tool. If much of our homeland security is created to defeat “movie-style plots” (as Schneier likes to say), it seems like the police think movie-style weapons are the best way to do so. And so $300,000 is misspent. Do you feel safer as a result?
What do you think of this purchase? Will it be useful or not? Let me know what you think.