From Warzone to the Police Beat: The Rise of Unmanned Policing

Written by Tyler Wall

Aerial drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are the latest military technologies being “repurposed” and “redeployed” for the policing of domestic populations and territories. Equipped with powerful surveillance cameras, thermal imaging and aerial hovering capabilities, and in the more popular models missile strike capabilities, remote-controlled aerial drones have become one of the primary weapons deployed by the US military in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Drones, according to former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, are “the only game in town” in the so-called war on terrorism. Although President Bush initiated what could be called drone warfare, the strategic use of drones for foreign policy has increased and intensified under the Obama administration. But as the historian Alfred McCoy writes, “war itself never stays far from home for long.” As political geographer Stephen Graham has recently observed in his book Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, there is a long history still operating where technologies and practices first designed and used for warfare, colonization, and occupation “boomerang” back to the “homeland” to be used for domestic security purposes. Therefore, the emergence of police drones in the United States is but the most recent example of this continual interplay between war and policing.

In addition to the UAVs flown for several years over US border regions by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), drones are slowly migrating further inland to local police departments, as they are increasingly being imagined as a domestic police technology similar to the patrol car in their capacity to revolutionize the routine operation of police power. Perhaps the two most publicized cases are the two T-Hawk drones acquired by Miami-Dade police and Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department’s (Texas) Shadowhawk drone, both models of which were obtained through Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grants. Currently, police UAVs have emerged to varying extents in police departments in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Maryland, North Dakota, Seattle, South Carolina, and Utah. As a Texas police official exclaims, “Public-safety agencies are beginning to see this as an invaluable tool for them, just as the car was an improvement over the horse and the single-shot pistol was improved upon by the six-shooter”. But of course, it is not merely police agencies that are behind the push for police drones, but also the private security industry, specifically drone manufacturers, and also politicians and legislatures of the US government. Here we could point to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, or AUVSI, as well as the US congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus. Working closely together, these two groups highlight clearly that the “military-industrial complex” is alive and kicking.

Police drones are said to assist the police in a diversity of ways, such as traffic congestion and enforcement, search and rescue, manhunts and police pursuits, surveillance of drug markets, SWAT assistance, natural disaster assistance, monitoring protests and large crowds, hostage situations and barricaded subjects, and intelligence-gathering and routine surveillance. Indeed, the police applications appear endless, especially as the technologies become more advanced and innovative. As one spokesperson for a local government that purchased a drone remarked, “As we get into this we’ll be able to find more uses for it”. It is important though to point out that although police drones are currently unarmed, less advanced, and much smaller in size than the popular military variety of Predator and Reaper drones, this does not mean current police drones are insignificant and uncontroversial.

Police drone enthusiasts also argue that police drones save lives and save money. They save lives, so it is argued, by providing additional air support for officers on the ground, removes the need for helicopter pilots and therefore the potential for deadly crashes, and by providing an extra layer of “public safety” for the population at large. As one former NYPD officer states, “Not only would it be a form of intelligence gathering to protect the public, it also in many respects removes the officers, who might be attempting to identify issues, from harm’s way.” Unsurprisingly, this discourse mirrors exactly military officials’ justifying discourses for the controversial use of drones in warfare. Police drones are also said to save departments and taxpayers money by being much less expensive than police helicopters. Although this logic has some merit, it can also be misleading as the majority of police departments in the US do not in fact already possess helicopters.

Yet the parallels with police helicopters and military use of drones is instructive as it better situates the emergence of police drones within a historical trajectory of what architect Eyal Weizman has called a “politics of verticality” where government powers have sought to secure their respective interests or territories – either in warzones or on the police beat – through a mastery of a “view from above”. For certain, the emergence of the police drone usefully magnifies the quite literal police dream of possessing an “eye in the sky” that can mold order out of disorder through a vertical sovereignty that can better render the invisible visible, or the illegible legible, and hence bolster or support police power on the ground. Of course, this move for police drones rightly has its critics, such as civil libertarians who are concerned about the potential for the police use of drones to violate individual privacy and engage in unlawful surveillance activities that might violate the 4th amendment. In addition to the standard concerns of privacy and civil liberties, there are also concerns, although less frequently discussed, about the ways police drones might be deployed in discriminating ways against racial minorities and “the ghetto” as well as outspoken dissidents challenging the dominant social order such as anti-war or anti-capitalist activists. Finally, there are also other concerns unrelated to their political purposes, such as mechanical failures where the UAV falls from the sky, or loses contact with its remote pilot, or mid-air collisions with airplanes – events that are actually quite common with military drones. Although drone enthusiasts want to write these off as insignificant or simply ask for citizen “trust” that they will do the right thing, these are important concerns that in fact should take priority and be the main focus of popular and official discourse. It is paramount that we think long and hard about who and what is really being “secured” with the rise of police drones and for what particular reasons and interests. Might police drones eventually produce more insecurity?

The rise of police drones in the United States underlines how the pursuing of security and profit, promoted by both liberals and conservatives, are often so intertwined in capitalist society that they have become normalized. This is largely why the FAA guidelines regulating the use of national airspace are currently in the process of being relaxed so that both public and private drone enthusiasts – such as AUVSI, Unmanned Systems Caucus, and policing agencies – are satisfied and well-fed. It is no secret that homeland security has never been solely about security, but also just as much about security industries marketing and selling their “silver bullet” wares for a profit. And to do this, the security industries are also in the business of selling fear and insecurity in order to justify their existence and their security commodities. It is hard not to see the drone, both military and police versions, as but the newest, yet misplaced and controversial, “technological fix” to complex political economic problems often referred to as “insecurity”.

Ultimately, those advocating for the police use of drones promise that patrolling from the skies will inevitably lead to not only accumulation for drone manufacturers, but also enhanced “security” and “public safety” for the general population. Political theorist Mark Neocleous convincingly shows in his book, Critique of Security, that Karl Marx was quite astute in suggesting that “security” is the “supreme concept” of capitalist society – and with this in mind, we might say security is perhaps the most powerful, normalized, and insidious discourse that governmental and corporate organizations espouse in order to justify virtually any course of action. Really, if we put a little thought into it, it is not difficult to realize that history teaches us that virtually anything can and has been justified in the name of security. And it is no secret that the administration of security and order – in both warzones and on the police beat – have long been executed in discriminatory and prejudiced ways that ultimately relies upon and perpetuates classed, racialized, and gendered inequalities. In the final analysis then, perhaps it is not merely police drones that deserve our scrutiny and questioning, but the stealthy logic of security and the unrelenting search for profits, and their insidious coupling, that warrants our most unwavering and ruthless critique?

***In no way are the views and arguments expressed here represent Eastern Kentucky University, the College of Justice and Safety, the School of Justice Studies, and my school colleagues.

Tyler Wall, Assistant Professor
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University

Published on March 19, 2013