Local law enforcement agencies around the country are acquiring drones at a dizzying pace, often with financing from the federal government, asset forfeiture, and in some cases, private grants.

According to a report released last spring by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, 347 local agencies in 43 states acquired drones between 2009 and March 2017. The agencies included 121 sheriff’s offices, 96 police departments, 69 fire departments, 43 other city or county government agencies, and 18 statewide first responder departments.

Texas ranked as the number one state for local government drone acquisitions with 28. California was second with 23 and Alabama ranked third with 20.

The vast majority of drone acquisitions happened just last year. In 2016, 167 departments are believed to have acquired drones. This was more than all previous years combined and double the number of acquisitions in 2015.

According to the report, precisely pinning down the funding sources for drones proves difficult. But the analysis did find that 82 public safety departments reportedly acquired a drone through either a donation, grant, or special fund such as civil forfeiture.

The fact that many companies selling surveillance technology specifically advertise the availability of federal funding shows how important government dollars are to the industry. For instance, a company called Homeland Surveillance Electronics sells unmanned aircraft systems to law enforcement agencies. It dedicated an entire page of its website to explain how to apply for FEMA grants to purchase unmanned aerial vehicles.

“Homeland Surveillance & Electronics LLC provides this grant page to help law enforcement agencies with funding their UAV through FEMA and other available grants as well as other funding sources”

The number of state and local police departments buying drones using federal money is likely even higher than the Center for the Study of Drones found because agencies sometimes purchase drones out of larger grants awarded for broad “public safety” purposes. Individual items bought with these funds aren’t always disclosed. And police departments sometimes try to keep their drone programs secret.

For example, according to Motherboard, in 2013, police in San Jose, Calif. used $8,000 of a $480,000 Homeland Security grant to purchase a drone. Just five months later, the San Jose Police Department replied to an open records request for information on unmanned aircraft saying it had no documents relating to drones.

The DHS Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) awards millions of dollars in grants each year for law enforcement, emergency response, and critical infrastructure security in major metropolitan areas. For fiscal year 2013, the Bay Area UASI group received more than $27 million for a wide range of projects, a fraction of which was slotted to SJPD’s unmanned aerial vehicle.

When confronted by Motherboard, the SJPD admitted to the drone purchase and claimed its response to the records request was a simple mixup because the grant request was submitted through another unit of the department.

The Miami Police Department scrapped plans over the summer to deploy “persistent aerial surveillance technology.” According to the CATO Institute, “One of the best-known aerial surveillance companies allows users to keep a roughly 25 square mile area under surveillance.” The Miami Herald blew the whistle on the proposal after it dug up a grant proposal to fund the surveillance system. As CATO noted, “MDPD Director Juan Perez was set to ask county commissioners to retroactively approve a grant application to the Department of Justice for the aerial surveillance testing. The fact that MDPD was seeking federal money for the surveillance equipment reminds us that federal involvement in state and local policing should be strictly limited.”

The federal government has no constitutional authority to fund equipment for local police departments. And all of this money comes with strings attached. In return, federal agencies tap into the information gathered by state and local law enforcement through fusion centers and a federal program known as the information sharing environment.

According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant.

In a nutshell, the federal government encourages and funds a network of drones at the state and local level across the U.S., thereby gaining access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself.

This highlights the importance of limiting drone surveillance at the state and local level. By placing restrictions on drone use, state and local governments limit the data available that the feds can access. Without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information.This represents a major blow to the surveillance state and a win for privacy.

Mike Maharrey

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