ND law enforcement could equip drones with pepper spray, 'nonlethal' weapons

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Law enforcement in North Dakota can now equip drones with nonlethal weapons, including pepper spray or bean bag guns, thanks to changes to a bill initially meant to limit the devices' use.

GOP Rep. Rick Becker initially proposed House Bill 1328 to limit how law enforcement agencies use unmanned aircraft, preventing them from searching for criminal evidence unless they have a warrant from a judge, and by insisting they only use them to investigate felony-level crimes.

But the final version of the bill, which was approved by legislators this week, featured some crucial altered language relating to equipping drones with weapons.

The original bill said:

"A state agency may not authorize the use of, including granting a permit to use, an unmanned aircraft armed with any lethal or nonlethal weapons, including firearms, pepper spray, bean bag guns, mace, and sound-based weapons."

The final version said:

"A law enforcement agency may not authorize the use of, including granting a permit to use, an unmanned aerial vehicle armed with any lethal weapons."

The removal of the "nonlethal" relating to firearms has opened the door to drones being equipped with weaponry, and it comes after interest was expressed by law enforcement officials in North Dakota.

Mike Reitan, President of the North Dakota Peace Officers' Association, told BringMeTheNews that while they are not in favor of lethal weapons on drones, the possibility of nonlethal devices on unmanned aircraft could be a useful option.

"Law enforcement did express a desire to remain open to the possibility of using drones to deliver nonlethal devices such as pepper spray against a barricaded subject," he said. "Under current practice in these situations, pepper spray is delivered by firing a projectile into the area of the subject."

Weaponizing law enforcement drones

The change in the law was picked up this week by The Daily Beast, which reports North Dakota is the first state to approve the weaponization of drones; the news site says it came after lobbying from the Peace Officers' Association.

Becker, the original bill's author, apparently wasn't happy with the amendment, but said had to live with it.

"This is one I’m not in full agreement with," he said at a hearing in March, according to The Daily Beast. "In my opinion there should be a nice, red line: Drones should not be weaponized. Period."

Esquire comments this change in law means the issue of the "militarization" of local police forces – a subject of heavy debate nationally last year – needs to be revisited.

The Daily Beast also reports the decision to ban agencies from "snooping" on suspects using a drone without a warrant – a measure passed in the final bill – hasn't been widely welcomed by some in North Dakota's law enforcement community.

Grand Forks County Sheriff Bob Rost told The Daily Beast his department's drones are only equipped with cameras, and doesn't think a warrant should be required to root out crime, saying: "It was a bad bill to start with. We just thought the whole thing was ridiculous."

North Dakota drone activity

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) figures requested by MuckRock show the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Department carried out 401 drone operations in the five years up to Sept. 30, 2014. But the sheriff's office told The Daily Beast it had only used drones on "21 missions."

The Associated Press reports North Dakota is one of six places in the U.S. that Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) researchers are using as test sites to see how commercial drones can be integrated into civilian airspace.

North Dakota differs from the other five sites however, as its drones are allowed to be flown up to 1,200 feet above ground level and can fly at night; the others are limited to 200 feet during daylight hours.

The Washington Post reports the state – which it described as "really into drones" – actively campaigned to be one of the six FAA test sites.

It also notes the University of North Dakota has jumped on the drone bandwagon, offering a major in unmanned aircraft systems operations.

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