MONROE, N.C. -- Monroe’s City Council has given its police department approval to buy a “mini drone,” a type of military technology whose expanded use around the nation is drawing increased scrutiny from Washington politicians and civil libertarians.
The council on Tuesday approved spending $44,000 in drug forfeiture funds to buy a battery-powered mini drone, complete with a rotating infrared camera. City officials said they are not looking to spy on law-abiding residents. They said detailed usage policies will be in place before they deploy the device, which will be used only for community safety, such as at crime scenes, searches or natural disasters.
Still, council members recognized the controversy surrounding their decision.
“We’ll have a lot of citizens say, ‘I don’t want that thing flying over my neighborhood,’ and I agree with them 100 percent. … It speaks of Big Brother watching you,” council member Margaret Desio said Thursday. “If it’s flying, there better be a damn good reason it’s in the air.”
The council’s decision comes amid increasing national debate about whether military technology used to track terrorists overseas should be deployed by civilians at home.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, cited the use of unmanned military drones during his 13-hour filibuster to delay the vote for a new CIA director.
He offered to stop if the Senate voted on his resolution stating that using drones on U.S. soil against American citizens violates the Constitution. Democrats rejected the offer.
On Thursday, American Civil Liberties Union chapters in 23 states, including North Carolina, filed public records requests asking police agencies to detail how they’re using drones and other devices principally used for military purposes overseas.
The ACLU made the requests to agencies across North Carolina, including police departments in Mecklenburg, Burke, Catawba, Gaston, Union and Cabarrus counties.
“We’re concerned about oversight,” said Chris Brook, a legal director at the ACLU’s North Carolina chapter. “We’re concerned about public support and public input into its use. We’re concerned about whether it’s cost effective. And we have broader concerns when these sort of tactics come into play.”
Monroe Police Chief Debra Duncan said she understands the concerns about privacy and other issues, which will be addressed in the policy for the device’s use.
“It’s not like we’re going to send it up and see what you are doing in your backyard,” Monroe Police Major Bryan Gilliard added. “It’s for community safety.”
The 3-foot-long, 2.5-pound device could be used, for instance, during drug raids in a large area or to track a fleeing crime suspect, officials said.
Duncan expects it will be at least several months before the device is ready to go up in Monroe.
Gaston drone troubles
Gaston County police bought an unmanned aerial vehicle in 2006. But the “Cyberbug” program was flawed from the start.
During its public debut, it was unable to turn left because of a broken rudder, and stopped receiving signals from an operator on the ground. Later, after a series of crashes of a similar model in California, the Federal Aviation Administration strengthened requirements for flying the devices, said Gaston Capt. Bill Melton.
“We were on the cutting edge of that movement,” Melton said. “But the FAA administered a bunch of restrictions that really pulled our program off line.”
He said the department’s $30,000 Cyberbug has been shelved for five years.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has two helicopters but does not have a drone, a spokesman said.
Patrick Cannon, chairman of the Charlotte City Council’s community safety committee, said he thinks a drone could be useful. The police department could launch one during searches for criminals or runaways, instead of flying a police helicopter.
“I don’t know that it’s a tool that we absolutely need yet,” Cannon said. “We may, but I’d like to have that conversation with the police chief and the department. If you don’t have to send the helicopter every time, that’s a (cost) reduction, and anytime you can find a reduction in today’s time, it’s very welcome.”
Still, Cannon was open to limiting police use of drones, and to getting public input.