"It's for community safety."

I happy there has been an intense discussion on the use of drones. I personally believe this kind of extraterritorial and extrajudicial killing is the central political issue of our time, not to mention a profound moral issue that we can ill afford to ignore.  It is almost certainly going to become a key aspect of our projection of force abroad, and therefore a key aspect of American imperial governance that requires observation and critique (yup, and oppostition if not resistance).

I know as a historian that this breed of unilateralism is nothing new. We were in fact engaging in wide array of extraordinarily similar extraterritorial and extrajudicial killings in the latter half of the 19th century as a matter of foreign policy (as well as extraterritorial abductions and other extralegal acts) with much less sophisticated technology. 

Let me say self-aggrandizingly: If you don't have time to read the book I wrote about these topics, try out this reasonably short article I wrote, especially the first section on General Ord.

The drone issue has been churning with great intensity among legal scholars at the usual places like Opinio Juris and Lawfare, and a nice recent historically minded post by Ben Coates at the Legal History Blog.  It is nice to see that Rand Paul might have at least a temporary utility to force it into the public view. A little theater is always welcome.

I don't expect much to change in the growth of the industry or in the slipperiness of the parameters for drone use.  I definitely don't think the usage of drones is going to do anything but explode in the coming years, both abroad and at home. 

But it seems to me that whether or not the drones are used to kill American citizens is a straw man argument for understanding their use in existing systems of power and surveillance.

And it is definitely worth noting that the state already yields the power and authority to kill citizens, sometimes innocent ones.  We already authorize all police officers to use deadly force when they feel it is appropriate.  These shootings occur regularly, all over the country, by obscure officers who rarely face punishment or sanction for the deaths of suspects. (here is a brief discussion on it. And another discussing the fact that most people shot by police are mentally ill.)  The way the LA cops ran violently though an innocent populace looking for a loose cannon killer is but one recent and tragic example (there was a very good discussion of this back in February at the ever-interesting Gin and Tacos).

Meanwhile, out in the provinces, the changes of the new era have already arrived at police distrcts in North Carolina

"
MONROE, N.C. 
Monroe City Council has approved buying a drone for its police department.
The council voted this week to spend $44,000 in drug forfeiture funds to buy a battery-powered mini-drone with a rotating infrared camera.
City officials say detailed policies will be in place before they use the drone. Officials expect to use it at crime scenes, in searches or in case of natural disasters.
Not everyone thinks it's a good idea.
"We'll have a lot of citizens say, 'I don't want that thing flying over my neighborhood,' and I agree with them 100 percent," Councilwoman Margaret Desio said Thursday.
American Civil Liberties Union chapters in North Carolina and 22 other states filed public records requests Thursday asking police agencies to explain how they are using drones and other equipment chiefly used by the military.
The requests in North Carolina include police departments in Burke, Cabarrus, Catawba, Gaston, Mecklenburg and Union counties.
"We're concerned about public support and public input into its use. We're concerned about whether it's cost effective. And we have broader concerns when these sort of tactics come into play." said Chris Brook, a legal director at the ACLU's North Carolina chapter.
Monroe Police Chief Debra Duncan said concerns about privacy and other issues will be addressed in the policy for the device's use.
"It's not like we're going to send it up and see what you are doing in your backyard," Major Bryan Gilliard said. "It's for community safety."
Duncan says it will be several months before the drone is ready. It is 3 feet long and weighs 2.5-pounds."
 


Lots of things jump out of this story. I like the combination of crime scenes, searches, and natural disasters. The first and second are pretty straightforward. But what about the searching? The major helpfully links it not with the usual definition of searching but with "community safety". Ah, yes. Safety.


What I find especially concerning, though not surprising, is that the police department is utilitizing $44,000 in drug forfeiture funds to buy the drones. What a neat circle! Of course, such drug forfeitures are a core, cash intensive component of modern police work. The police are deeply incentivized to follow up drug cases, even ones that never end in successful prosecution, because it allows underfunded police departments to confiscate large amounts of money and propertythat can be frittered away. It is essentially a form of 100% tax, made even more sinister by the fact that it is collected involuntarily from people accused of crimes or of aiding in the commission of a crime. The people whose property is taken are not necessarily convicted of any crime or even accused of criminal activity themselves. (for example, here, here, here, here, and so on. Oh, here you can see what the U.S. Marshals Service is auctioning off.


At first you might think only cranks would get exercised about the abuses, but they are widespread enough to be a system. As DrugSense.org notes, "In 2009, U.S. Attorneys seized over one billion dollars in assets, roughly four times more than in 1989. During that 21 year span, the value of forfeited assets totaled 11 billion dollars, five billion short of the 2011 federal drug control budget."


so why not use this easy money to buy drones to increase surveillance of the public? And presumedly this surveillance could yield more asset foreiture opportunities.


We need to divide our critique of the use of drones in foreign relations acts and the use of drones in domestic politics since the systemics of these two uses are very different in their motivation, in their social impact, and in their moral weight. The likelihood of regular unwarranted surveillance is far higher than the likelihood of assassination from the air and it should be the place we start the conversation.
 

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