Tase of our lives

[A follow-up on our recent show on drones -ed]:

By Hannah Yi Monday, March 12, 2012

As a Texas sheriff prepares to use an unmanned drone as his force’s eye in the sky, and perhaps even arm it with nonlethal weapons like Tasers and rubber bullets, civil liberties groups are crying foul.

In the coming weeks, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office north of Houston says it will deploy a  $300,000 ShadowHawk drone — bought with a federal homeland security grant — to spy on criminals, support SWAT operations and look for missing persons.

The unmanned helicopter is about the size of a large dog, has a range of 25 miles and can be operated for 11 percent of the cost of a manned helicopter, according to the ShadowHawk’s manufacturer, Vanguard Defense Industries.

A spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union said the sheriff’s office’s 50-pound device is part of a worrying rise of unmanned surveillance by police.

“Drones are coming to America, to a police department near you,” said Kirsten Bokenkamp, with the Houston ACLU. “The biggest fear with domestic drones is the prospect of surveillance, the idea that Americans will simply be subject to surveillance by drones outdoors whenever they happen to go outside.”

Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel said the Montgomery County’s unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, would only be deployed in instances when officers had probable cause to believe a crime was taking place.

“We’ve never gone into surveillance for sake of surveillance unless there is criminal activity afoot,” he said. “Just to see what you’re doing in your backyard pool — we don’t care.”

While the device will carry high-resolution cameras and infrared sensors to pinpoint suspects in the dark, McDaniel said there was little difference between this and the capabilities of manned aircraft.

“You have news helicopters, military helicopters, private planes that fly over your house daily that have the same opportunity to see what you’re doing just as easily as this UAV,” he said.

While McDaniel said the department has no interest in loading lethal weapons systems onto its ShadowHawk, he said the sheriff’s office was open to the idea of adding non-lethal weapons like tear gas, rubber bullets or Taser-style rounds to the drone.

“Those are things that law enforcement utilizes day in and day out and in certain situations it might be advantageous to have this type of system on the UAV,” he said.

McDaniel said the department had no specific plans do so but, even so, civil libertarians like Bokenkamp called the possibility of a Taser- or tear-gas-wielding police drones “really frightening.”

Officers on the ground “can make very nuanced judgments about whether or not that use of force is appropriate but you don’t have that same contextual reasoning when the person operating the drone is far away,” she said. “It raises the possibility that this type of force will be overused and it’s really not something that local law enforcement should be contemplating.”

The CEO of Vanguard Defense Industries, Michael Buscher, said at this point non-lethal devices like flares, rubber bullets and tear gas are only sold on military versions of the drone. The company has researched using such devices on police drones, but he said Vanguard has received no requests for the capabilities and so far hasn’t made them available.