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We're not weaponizing drones, Grand Forks County sheriff says

Bob Rost1 / 2
Rick Becker2 / 2

Grand Forks area law enforcement officials want to make one thing clear: They have no intention of weaponizing unmanned aircraft in the near future, despite some saying it’s legal to under state law.

North Dakota’s new statute governing law enforcement use of unmanned aircraft bans attaching lethal weapons to the devices but leaves out language concerning less-than lethal weapons, such as Tasers or pepper spray dispensers.  

“State law is so wide open that you can, but we’re not going to,” Grand Forks County Sheriff Bob Rost said. “And we wouldn’t even think of it.”

The ban is a small portion of the law, which focuses on law officers getting warrants before conducting surveillance with the devices, but its existence has made headlines across the globe this past week.

Law enforcement agencies technically could outfit a unmanned aircraft with a nonlethal weapon, and so could departments in 43 other states.

A Herald analysis of state legislation spanning 2013 to 2015 found only seven states outright prohibit some form of weaponized unmanned aircraft.

North Dakota bans lethal weapons, while Maine, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia and Wisconsin don’t make a distinction between lethal and less-than lethal weapons.

Before North Dakota’s law came about, Rost said the department has a policy against the use of weapons on unmanned aircraft that was set up in 2012, when it partnered with UND’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research and Compliance Committee to start research into potential uses of the technology for law enforcement.   

“We wanted to make sure that, in being able to utilize these aircraft, we follow a procedure,” he added. “We wanted to make sure any missions we fly were first screened by the compliance committee to ensure we’re doing everything properly.”

Cause and effect

North Dakota’s law went into effect Aug. 1, but Rost and Grand Forks Police Chief Mark Nelson don’t foresee an immediate impact on their operations.

They say none of the five scenarios during which they could launch aircraft are situations that require a warrant as defined by criminal statutes.

“Right now, I’d be hard pressed to find a legitimate need to weaponize,” Nelson said.

The law is a product of a House Bill 1328, of which Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, was a primary sponsor. The bill introduced this year in the North Dakota Legislature was Becker’s second attempt to regulate law enforcement use of unmanned aircraft. The first bill was killed in 2013.

The provision that bans outfitting the devices with lethal weapons was a compromise between proponents and a law enforcement lobbyist, Becker said.

“The bill, even amended, still accomplishes a tremendous amount,” he said. “Requiring search warrants for law enforcement to do surveillance, I think, is a huge, huge win for civil liberties and prohibiting lethal weapons is a good first step.”

Becker confirmed he has plans to introduce legislation to ban the remaining nonlethal weapons when the Legislature meets again in 2017. He added he is aware of the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department's policy.

“The point of wanting it to become law is because of departmental policies change,” Becker said. “We can’t rely on each city and each county’s department policy, we just need a simple law the way it was originally introduced.”

The lobbyist, Bruce Burkett, suggested changes on behalf of the North Dakota Peace Officers Association. The association’s president, Michael Reitan, police chief of West Fargo, elaborated on the amendment during an interview with National Public Radio this week.

“Well, talking to law enforcement agencies that have SWAT teams, they felt that there needed to be an ability to deliver nonlethal munitions into certain situations -- a barricaded subject -- and the possibility of allowing the use of pepper spray to be deployed from a drone,” he said.

Following its adoption, North Dakota’s law puts it among 16 other states that have statutes regulating law enforcement’s use of unmanned aircraft.

“This was an area that needed improvement,” Becker said of North Dakota lacking regulation. “North Dakota is on the forefront of drone technology, research and education, and with this law, we can also be on the forefront of protecting civil liberties when it comes to UAS.”

A majority of the 17 states have laws that define requirements and exceptions for obtaining a warrant for unmanned device use and create rules for the use of storage of evidence gained from these aircraft.

The laws vary from state to state. For example, in North Dakota, officers must procure a warrant for surveillance, while Virginia requires agencies to obtain a warrant for any use of an unmanned aircraft.

Limited effect

While the lethal weapons ban will remain on North Dakota's books until at least the next legislative session, it presently only affects Grand Forks County law enforcement.

The Sheriff’s Department is the only law enforcement agency in the state so far with clearance to operate unmanned aircraft. It and the Grand Forks Police Department operate a UAS unit consisting of two police representatives, two sheriff representatives and two UND pilots.

The agencies’ use of the devices began in 2012 as a research project under the purview of the UND Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research and Compliance Committee.

The committee approved five mission sets for which the agencies are allowed to use their devices: crime and traffic scene analysis, disaster scene management, missing person searches and major event traffic monitoring.

“Even if we were to weaponize, where would it fit in with the five approved mission sets that we have?” Nelson said.

The research project has since ended, but Rost and Nelson say their agencies are still adhering to standards set by the committee.

“We were at a crossroads to say, ‘Is there really oversight needed on this from the research committee?” Nelson said. “And procedurally, the answer is ‘no,’ but we’ve elected to … take that extra step, and if there’s something outside of the five approved mission sets, we’re going to run it through the committee and ensure there is transparency.”

Nelson and two sheriff’s deputies, BJ Maxson and Al Frazier, continue to serve on the compliance committee with representatives from UND, the city of Grand Forks and the Grand Forks community.

The UAS unit has flown 16 missions since its inception and regularly conducts training flights. Currently, the Sheriff’s Department has authorization to fly its three unmanned aircraft in 17 counties concentrated in the northeastern corner of North Dakota. Its UAS unit also has assisted law enforcement in Minnesota, Rost said, specifically flying over the scene of a house explosion in rural Bemidji.