Drones Over S.C. Skies: Latest Trend for Police Agencies?

June 11, 2013

Investigative Reports

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DroneAmid the uproar over last week’s revelations that the U.S. government has been secretly collecting millions of Americans’ cell phone and online records, the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina is trying to find out if local police agencies are doing high-tech aerial snooping.

The Palmetto State’s ACLU affiliate on March 6 filed open-records requests with the Beaufort, Horry, Richland and York sheriff’s departments seeking records to “determine the extent to which local police departments are using federally subsidized military technology and tactics that are traditionally used overseas,” according to the nonprofit organization’s website.

That includes the use of “unmanned aerial vehicles,” commonly referred to as drones, which critics contend could be used to unconstitutionally spy on – and even kill – U.S. citizens. In response to those concerns in South Carolina, at least three bills (S. 395, H. 3415, H. 3514) were introduced early this year in the General Assembly restricting the use of drones by police agencies, though none of the legislation passed.

Under the S.C. Constitution, there are protections against “unreasonable invasions of privacy” (Article 1, Section 10).

The S.C. Freedom of Information Act requests by the ACLU of South Carolina are part of a project by ACLU affiliates nationwide. To date, the South Carolina affiliate has not received its requested information, according to Susan Dunn, the state organization’s legal director.

The ACLU’s request to the Richland County Sheriff’s Department for records related to that agency’s SWAT team and “cutting-edge weapons and technology” could cost “several thousand dollars,” according to a copy of an April 1 letter from department attorney Scott Hayes to the organization.

In a follow-up letter, Dunn complained that the department has “simply attempted to discourage the request by indicating that the costs may be high.”

Contacted Monday by The Nerve, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said his agency doesn’t have any “military-surplus” drones, though the department has a remote-controlled, unmanned helicopter about “as big as my desk top.” Lott said the aircraft was built about two years ago for approximately $2,000 by a deputy who also is a helicopter pilot.

Lott said the remote-controlled aircraft, which is not armed with a weapon but instead shoots video, has not been used to for any general surveillance of groups.

“Probably the biggest use of it is show-and-tell at community groups,” Lott said, adding his most requested piece of equipment at community functions is a military-surplus armored personnel carrier dubbed “The Peacemaker.”

Lott said his agency also has robots and infrared equipment, as well as a manned helicopter and an airplane.

As for the use of unmanned drones, the ACLU of South Carolina on its website says that “surveillance tools could be appropriately deployed” in cases of serious crimes “where there is probable cause and police are searching for suspects.”

“Allowing permanent warrantless surveillance of the mass of citizens who are law-abiding is another matter,” according to the organization’s online statement. “We should not watch people just in case they do something wrong.”

The bills introduced this year in the S.C. Legislature generally would have restricted the use of drones to cases where criminal search warrants were first obtained. One of the House bills (H. 3514) was amended in committee to ban using a “public unmanned aircraft system as a weapon or to deliver a weapon against a person or property.”

Lott said his department’s remote-controlled helicopter was used in November to help capture several suspects after a robbery at the Wells Fargo bank at Two Notch and Parklane roads, during which shots were fired inside the bank and later at pursuing officers. One of the four suspects was shot and killed after being confronted by officers; the other three were captured, authorities said then.

Lott said although he is not seeking to purchase a drone for his department, he supports the use of the aircraft – even arming it to save an officer’s or someone else’s life. He recalled an incident out West in which someone in a police helicopter was shot and killed during a pursuit.

“I wouldn’t be doing my duty if I didn’t use a piece of equipment if it could save people’s lives,” he said, adding that drones are the “hottest law-enforcement item right now” nationwide.

Asked about the use of drones to protect police officers, Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, said Monday in a written response to The Nerve: “The ACLU is not opposed to drone use in all circumstances, and it is true that drones can sometimes save cops’ lives. The key is that we need to put a system of privacy protections and rules in place to make sure we can take advantage of drone technology without becoming a surveillance society in which every word is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by authorities.”

Lott said he understands concerns about the possible misuse of drones, noting he recently was approached in a gym by a man who asked him to “please don’t get one of those drones that are used to shoot and kill people.”

As for the quoted several-thousand-dollar estimate from his department regarding the open-records request by the ACLU of South Carolina, Lott denied his agency was trying to discourage the release of information.

“What they’re asking for is a massive amount of information that would take a full-time person more than a week to do,” he said.

In a written response Monday to The Nerve, Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Sgt. Robin McIntosh said the ACLU’s records request to her agency was “quite comprehensive,”  though county attorney Joshua Gruber later told The Nerve he thought the total cost of the request would be about $30.

Gruber said although he didn’t know for sure, he didn’t think the sheriff’s office had any drones, adding the agency doesn’t have any manned aircraft.

Horry County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Jeff Benton said Monday his agency doesn’t own any drones, referring The Nerve to the Horry County Police Department, which couldn’t be reached for comment Monday. In a written response Monday, Dunn, the state ACLU’s legal director, said Horry County has “claimed that records are exempt and refused to produced anything.”

Dunn also said the York County Sheriff’s Office “has not responded at all” to the ACLU’s records request. Sheriff’s spokesman Trent Faris told The Nerve on Monday that his agency doesn’t have any drones, though he added a company made a presentation about drones while he was attending training several months ago at the state Criminal Justice Academy.

“It was the talk,” he recalled.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.