The Nelson County Sheriff’s department in North Dakota were tasked with finding six missing cows on a farm, but were chased off by three men with rifles. Sheriff Kelly Janke was afraid of a standoff with the three men, so he went for overkill in calling for help.
Janke knew the gunmen could be anywhere on the 3,000-acre spread in eastern North Dakota. Fearful of an armed standoff, he called in reinforcements from the state Highway Patrol, a regional SWAT team, a bomb squad, ambulances and deputy sheriffs from three other counties.
He also called in a Predator B drone.
As the unmanned aircraft circled 2 miles overhead the next morning, sophisticated sensors under the nose helped pinpoint the three suspects and showed they were unarmed. Police rushed in and made the first known arrests of U.S. citizens with help from a Predator, the spy drone that has helped revolutionize modern warfare.
This wasn’t the first time the police have used drones in the area either.
Local police say they have used two unarmed Predators based at Grand Forks Air Force Base to fly at least two dozen surveillance flights since June. The FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration have used Predators for other domestic investigations, officials said.
These drones are setting a dangerous precedent in allowing military drones to cross the lines into civilian use.
The previously unreported use of its drones to assist local, state and federal law enforcement has occurred without any public acknowledgment or debate.
Officials in charge of the fleet cite broad authority to work with police from budget requests to Congress that cite “interior law enforcement support” as part of their mission.
Though it hasn’t been widely publicized, the increased use of spy drones on US citizens should be a concern. There was no public debate on the use of drones and no one quite knows what legal authority they operate under.
In 2008 and 2010, Harman helped beat back efforts by Homeland Security officials to use imagery from military satellites to help domestic terrorism investigations. Congress blocked the proposal on grounds it would violate the Posse Comitatus Act, which bars the military from taking a police role on U.S. soil.
Given the fact that a spy drone could watch a single individual for up to twenty hours at a time should concern citizens.
“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,” said Ryan Calo, director for privacy and robotics at the Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.
Because law enforcement is keen to use spy drones without any public input or discussion, it is almost a given that it will be misused and overused.
The story of Sheriff Janke on the Brossart farm is a prime example of misuse.
The six adult Brossarts allegedly belonged to the Sovereign Citizen Movement, an anti-government group that the FBI considers extremist and violent. The family had repeated run-ins with local police, including the arrest of two family members earlier that day arising from their clash with a deputy over the cattle.
So, the sheriff automatically jumped the gun and said an armed standoff was currently occurring, which it was not. The drone then watched the Brossarts for four hours before the sheriff withdrew until daybreak. They returned the next morning.
Around 10 a.m., the video showed the three Brossart brothers riding all-terrain vehicles toward a decommissioned Minuteman ballistic missile site at the edge of their property. The sensor operator in Grand Forks switched to thermal mode, and the image indicated the three men were unarmed.
A SWAT team then moved in and arrested the unarmed men.
A search of the property turned up four rifles, two shotguns, assorted bows and arrows and a samurai sword, according to court records. Police also found the six missing cows, valued at $6,000.
Rodney Brossart, his daughter Abby and his three sons face a total of 11 felony charges, including bail jumping and terrorizing a sheriff, as well as a misdemeanor count against Rodney involving the stray cattle. All have been released on bail. Calls to Rodney Brossart were not returned Saturday. The family is believed to be living on the farm.
If one looks at this case objectively, many questions remain. Why did the sheriff not explain that someone else’s cows had strayed onto the Brossart property? It is likely that, given that it is rumored the Brossarts belong to Sovereign Citizens Movement, they’ve had run-ins with the law before. This probably makes them automatically hostile to the sheriff.
What does it matter that the family owns a few hunting weapons. They live in rural North Dakota and probably hunt as well as use their guns for protection from wild animals. Consider that six people live on the farm, are roughly ten to twelve weapons and unreasonable find?
Why is Rodney Brossart facing a misdemeanor charge concerning the stray cattle? Exactly what is the charge? Why is anyone being charged with anything concerning the stray cattle?
What are the eleven felony charges? They story doesn’t list them or explain what the charges are. Why is Rodney also being charged with terrorizing a sheriff? Did he do more than tell the sheriff to get off his land? We don’t know. We simply know that the Brossarts are bad guys because the police and the newspapers are telling us that they are.
There are still too many questions not reported in the news to determine why the Brossarts were arrested at all. What is abundantly clear is that civilian police departments are far too willing to encroach on civil liberties and private spaces to do their jobs properly. Spy drones are now normal on America’s northern and southern borders and they’re quickly moving into everyday life with alarming frequency. North Dakota seems to think this is okay. Do you?