With improving technology, police and prosecutors have become increasingly concerned that criminals with drones could outfit them with guns and bombs to create havoc.
Now, law enforcement is flipping that on its head with a bipartisan proposal to permit police to equip unmanned aircraft with deadly weapons.
The legislature's judiciary committee passed a bill this week that would make Connecticut the first state in the nation to allow the use of weaponized drones by law enforcement. North Dakota legalized police use of armed drones in 2015, but the law limits those weapons to less lethal technologies, such as rubber bullets and tear gas. The Connecticut measure contains no such restrictions.
Civil liberties groups were quick to denounce the idea. "It's unprecedented," said David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. "No other state in the country proactively authorizes police to put lethal weapons on drones. We have a real problem with that."
Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican and co-chairmen of the legislature's judiciary committee, said armed drones would be used by law enforcement "for very few cases." He noted that the bill was a bipartisan effort, winning the support of the committee's Democratic leaders: Rep. William Tong of Stamford and Sen. Paul Doyle of Wethersfield. In addition, the committee's ranking member, Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, was also supportive of the measure that passed by 34-7.
"This is an advance in technology," Kissel said, adding that law enforcement needs to move forward on crime prevention if criminals are using drones for their own purposes.
The potential police uses for drones, Kissel said, include sending one to dismantle a bomb in an area police could not otherwise reach, attaching a Taser to a drone to incapacitate a subject, shooting down another drone that had weapons, or finding a missing hiker in dense forest by sensing body heat instead of having 40 volunteers searching at night.
Police would not be using lethal drones right away. First they would need to have guidelines established by the Police Officer Standardized Training Council by January 2018, and then individual officers would need to be trained.
The weaponization provision is part of House Bill 7260, a broader bill that regulates the use of remote-controlled drones, by both police and members of the public, for the first time. It allows officers to use the technology if they obtain a warrant and operate within certain parameters.
The civil liberties union backs the other portions of the bill, saying it addresses privacy concerns raised by government use of drones, but that equipping police drones with deadly weapons is problematic.
"We do think that drones can help police keep us safe, but we don't see a reason to have police use a drone outfitted with lethal force," McGuire said.
A protestor, Michael Picard, 28, of South Windsor, stood inside the Legislative Office Building in Hartford on Friday with a yellow-and-black sign that said, "Don't drone me, bro."
He said, "Weaponizing drones and giving them to police departments isn't a good idea. Not only will they misuse them, but they have abused their power."
Three police departments in Connecticut -- Hartford, Plainfield and Woodbury -- own drones, though none is outfitted with weapons. Hartford Deputy Police Chief Brian Foley said his department bought a small, hobby-style drone equipped with a camera for deployment at indoor critical incidents about four years ago but has never used it.
"I can't imagine having a weaponized drone would have a great impact on public safety," Foley said. "I have worked in an urban environment for over 22 years, and I have never seen the need for it."
Like McGuire, Foley said he is concerned that using an armed drone could damage trust between police officers and the communities they serve. "We are not trying to automate police 'use of force.' Moreover, when you have automation, you could invite technical glitches. This is not a gamble we are willing to take."
He added: "We are always trying to improve our relationship and our trust with our community. Deploying a weaponized drone would not help us build and improve that trust. While there may be places in our state where this type of technology is needed, I don't think it belongs in our community."
But Foley said he could foresee a use for non-weaponized drone technology, such as helping to process crime scenes or enhancing public safety at large-scale public events such parades and concerts.
The measure still needs action by the House of Representatives, the Senate, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
The use of unmanned remote-controlled devices has risen sharply in recent years and more than 20 states have passed laws regulating them. The Connecticut legislature has been grappling with proposals to regulate drone use for several years. In 2015, a bill cleared the Senate but failed to come up for a vote in the House; the reversal happened last year.
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