Reports that the LAPD is using drones to search for ex-cop Christopher Dorner has led to claims that he is the "first human target for remote-controlled airborne drones on US soil." Other reports have denied the claim citing a case in 2011 in N. Dakota.
The UK Express carried a report that the police are using high-tech unmanned aerial vehicles after they concluded they would need them to sniff out the elusive fugitive. Express reports a source said: "The thermal imaging cameras the drones use may be our only hope of finding him. On the ground, it’s like looking for a needle fin a haystack."
According to the Express, Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz responded to a question about the police deploying drones to aid the search with the answer: "We are using all the tools at our disposal."
But US-based media evidently upset by the thought that a "tiny UK paper" scooped them have tried to discredit the report. Gawker reports that US Customs and Border Protection has denied reports that its drones are being used in the hunt for Dorner. According to RT, public affairs officer for agency, said: "Reports that US Customs and Border Protection's unmanned aircraft systems are being used are incorrect. CBP's UAS are not flying in support of the search."
RT, however, comments:
"But while sending a missile-equipped Predator drone to execute Dorner without trial or jury is without a doubt illegal and, frankly, improbable, it’s not entirely unlikely that special UAVs affixed with surveillance cameras are combing the West Coast for him right now. After all, the government has a collection of aircraft to use in these missions."
According to Parker Higgins of the Electronic Frontier Foundation: "The Department of Homeland Security (CPB’s parent agency) does loan out drones to police agencies, and they've kept the terms of such deals almost completely secret. EFF is currently suing DHS to find more information about that program. But in this case, the factual support isn't there."
Gawker notes that the LAPD and the FBI have been evasive in their response to questions about use of drones in the hunt for Dorner. According to the website, an LAPD spokesperson declined to confirm or deny claims that drones have been deployed in the hunt. Mashable reports that Public Information Officer Alex Martinez, said: "That would tip off any suspect watching media, right? So, to answer your question, we're not gonna answer that. Obviously because he has access to media and we're not going to let him know how we're approaching him."
With regard to the claim that if the LAPD and FBI are using drones in the hunt for Dorner, he would be the first person to be so targeted on US soil, Gawker refers to a report carried on the Los Angeles Times in June 2011 which says that police in North Dakota used a drone to capture three militia members on a 3,000 acre farm. The report dispels claims that if LAPD deploys drones in the hunt for Dorner, he would be the first human target for remotely controlled air vehicles on US soil.
The Los Angeles Times further reported that the police in North Dakota said they have used two unarmed Predators based at Grand Forks Air Force Base on several surveillance flights since June 2011.
According to Bill Macki, head of the police SWAT team in Grand Forks: "We don't use [drones] on every call out. If we have something in town like an apartment complex, we don't call them."
According to the Los Angeles Times, the drones used in the N. Dakota operation belonged to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which uses Predators in its operations against illegal immigrants and smugglers. Retired Air Force general Michael C. Kostelnik, who heads the office in charge of the drones, said Predators are flown "in many areas around the country, not only for federal operators, but also for state and local law enforcement and emergency responders in times of crisis."
It appears that the reason why officials on the hunt for Dorner have been evasive in their response to questions about drones in the search for Dorner is that use of drones to hunt citizens on US soil remains controversial, although Congress authorized Customs and Border Protection to buy unarmed Predators in 2005 and officials in charge of the fleet claim they are authorized to work with the police using the drones.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), who sat on the House homeland security intelligence subcommittee at the time Congress gave authorization for purchase of the unarmed drones said use of Predator drones to support police work was never discussed. Harman said that using Predators for law enforcement without public debate or a clear legal authority was wrong. She said: "There is no question that this could become something that people will regret."
Ryan Calo, director of privacy and robotics at the Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society agreed with Harman, saying: "Any time you have a tool like that in the hands of law enforcement that makes it easier to do surveillance, they will do more of it. This could be a time when people are uncomfortable, and they want to place limits on that technology."