The “dronification” of U.S. law enforcement

A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation has revealed that between 2010 and 2012, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (Predator) drones were used in over 500 flights by other government agencies. This included over 100 flights for Department of Justice organizations including the FBI, the DEA, and the US Marshals. According to the EFF, “This is in direct contradiction to a recently released DOJ Office of Inspector General (OIG) Report (pdf) that stated DHS had flown its drones on only two occasions for DOJ law enforcement components”. Other agencies include SWAT, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and several branches of the military. Interestingly, several county sheriffs departments have used CBP drones, only their identity was withheld for fear of disclosing information that may “aid” the criminals they are surveying.

Screen Shot 2013-09-30 at 09.51.01This disclosure–while hardly a surprise–is a clear example of the pervading “drone creep” within the U.S. domestic sphere. Military technologies have a history of returning to the homeland–flooding police forces with a range of armaments that further militarize law enforcement. Indeed, there is a growing literature on the mounting militarization of U.S. “streets” (a process that itself is hardly new, and began in earnest with the “War on Drugs” during successive Nixon administrations in the 1970s). Consider, by way of an example, a police offer that commands a SWAT team in Michigan. Replying to a Radley Balko’s book, “Rise of the Warriror Cop“, Sgt. Glenn French writes of the “battlefield mindset”:

“What would it take to dial back such excessive police measures?” he  wrote. “The obvious place to start would be ending the federal grants that encourage police forces to acquire gear that is more appropriate for the battlefield. Beyond that, it is crucial to change the culture of militarization in American law enforcement. He added, “We trainers have spent the past decade trying to ingrain in our students the concept that the American police officer works a battlefield every day he patrols his sector.”

That’s right: the American neighborhood is a “sector”, and part of a more generalized “battlefield” condition. Certainly, this is by no means a fait accompli, but it does certainly refer to the changing logics of policing–one that is underwritten most severely by a culture of statistics and quantitative manipulation. In the excellent documentary on the so-called “war on drugs”, The House I Live In, many of those interviewed (including creator of the The Wire, David Simon) discuss not simply the failings of a $1 trillion “war” against a chemical addiction, but the corrosive effect that it’s had on policing. Raw numbers now dominate the institutional milieu in a way that leaves little space for caring and rehabilitation.

The introduction of drones within policing will be felt most obviously by those that are uncomfortable with the idea of a totalizing form of surveillance. This may be one of the truly novel changes heralded by flying cameras. But the drone must also be seen as an outgrowth of those tendencies, procedures, and logics that are already in action. And here, the prevailing militarism of the police force–one that accelerated during the 1970s–will provide the resources and attitudes for a full integration of the drone into contemporary law enforcement practices. It will no doubt cement, in the minds of police and citizens alike, that the street is indeed a “sector” and the city is indeed a “battlefield” (here, it is perhaps apt to visualize the opening scene of the recent Judge Dredd movie, which illustrates a toxic urban environment patrolled by extra-judicial “Judges” and drones).Dredd

And, stepping back even further, the very idea of “law enforcement” now resonates with a “war on terror” that is focused on eliminating “individuals”. There has been lots written recently on the shift from a “status-based” form of targeting, that is, the targeting of clearly marked soldiers, to what I like to think of as an “evidence-based” form of targeting, that involves identifying a suspect based on either (a) a history of militant activity; (b) a suspicious “pattern of life” (c) the potential to commit acts of terrorism in the future. That is to say, targeting is now based on a tripartite division of “evidence”, with a temporality split between past, present, and future. It is also an evidence-based form of targeting that rests on a quasi-judicial (or perhaps extra-judicial) bureaucratic procedure conducted by the executive branch of government. The Obama administration never fails to persuade us of its adherence to strict legal frameworks for targeting (without ever revealing what those might in fact be). In short, targeted killing borrows many of its ideas and rhetoric from traditional judicial practice, only shorn from the public accountability we expect from the courts.

And so, it is the individual–the person that is neither the terrorist nor the criminal–that now occupies the space between war and law enforcement.

It is plain to see how this criminalization of the military target is operating abroad: al-Qaeda leaders eliminated, al-Shabab commanders struck by Hellfire missiles and so on… What is less sure about this inviduation of warfare, one underwritten by the drone, is how the militarization of the criminal will accelerate in law enforcement and open up new spaces of disposition. After the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in September 2011, an important threshold was crossed, in which a U.S. citizen could be killed without due process (and by some accounts – such as Jeremy Scahill’s, was killed for his inflammatory ideology rather than any operational function within AQAP). But that assassination was abroad. I think it is likely that the homogenization of the battlespace, in which the whole globe is broken down into “sectors” and policed by regional commanders, will not stop off the coast of the United States.

Instead, perhaps it is not so far-fetched as to imagine a further regional command that will occupy the continent of the U.S. itself. No longer “CENTCOM” in the Middle East, or STRATCOM in the skies: how about DOMCOM–Domestic Command? Although it is unconstitutional to have the U.S. military act as law enforcement, if that law enforcement is itself thoroughly militarized, then the difference is principally semantic rather than legal or ethical.

In the wake of the horrific Boston marathon bombs earlier this year, prominent Republican Lindsey Graham took to Twitter to comment on the unfolding event. Speaking to The Washington Post, he stated that “This is Exhibit A of why the homeland is the battlefield,” adding “It sure would be nice to have a drone up there”.

The dronification of law enforcement is old news.

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This entry was posted in Customs and Border Patrol, Empire, Policing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The “dronification” of U.S. law enforcement

  1. Pingback: Militarization of U.S. police forces in Ferguson and beyond – LINKS | Understanding Empire

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