ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And now, a high-flying installment of All Tech Considered.
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SIEGEL: In North Dakota, it is legal for police to arm drones with nonlethal weapons - think pepper spray, for instance, or tear gas. A new state law is on the cutting edge of legislation establishing limits for police use of unmanned aerial systems. It requires police to get warrants to use them for surveillance. And by ruling out arming them with any lethal weapon, it, in effect, OKs the use of nonlethal ones. To better understand all of this, we are going to talk first with the representative who wrote the legislation, Rick Becker, a Republican from Bismarck. Welcome to the program.
RICK BECKER: Hi. Thank you very much for having me.
SIEGEL: And tell us what was the intent of the bill that you wrote?
BECKER: Well, the primary intent was to require law enforcement to obtain a search warrant prior to being able to conduct surveillance on private citizens, and I introduced that in 2013. It failed, and I reintroduced it in 2015. Back in 2013, of course this was very cutting-edge, very new, and so I wanted the bill to be proactive and potentially model legislation for other states. So it did include other things, one of which was the prohibition of weaponizing the drones in any fashion.
SIEGEL: And that provision was amended to not ban any weaponization, but to ban the use of lethal weapons as I understand it.
BECKER: That's correct. One of the primary reasons the bill failed in 2013 was because of opposition by the law enforcement lobby. And my understanding is when the bill came to the judiciary committee in 2015, law enforcement lobbyists indicated that they would not actively oppose the bill so long as some amendments were included. One of the amendments was to remove the prohibition on nonlethal weapons, and that, in fact, is what was done.
SIEGEL: If in fact there's one category of weapons that are lethal and then nonlethal weapons that, in theory, at least, could be affixed to a drone, do you understand what the nonlethal weapons are that would be covered?
BECKER: Sure. It's a vast array. It could be a taser, sound cannons, pepper spray, beanbags, rubber bullets. You know, just about anything you can think of can be attached to a drone. You know, the drones vary in size from a small bird up to sort of the 12-foot drones that can have a couple of cannons attached to them.
SIEGEL: So I can imagine, if I were a police officer, I would say our SWAT team would be at a great advantage to be able to put a drone over a site and not just a surveil it, but also perhaps gas it, let's say.
BECKER: Yes, absolutely. I mean, if one did not take into consideration the concerns for civil liberties and looked only at maximum effectiveness, weapons on drones potentially could be highly effective.
SIEGEL: Well, given there being an OK for some weapons on drones that your bill had opposed originally - but you did get a requirement for a warrant before you could surveil a site with a drone - is this bill a victory as it stands?
BECKER: Well, I think it's a big victory. Requiring a search warrant for surveillance is huge, and we also got the prohibition of lethal weapons. We now have a law in effect, and I can go back at our next session and try and tweak and get the prohibition of nonlethal weapons back on. And I intend to do that.
SIEGEL: That's Rick Becker - Dr. Rick Becker, actually. He's a plastic surgeon in addition to being a Republican state representative from Bismarck, N.D. Thanks for talking with us.
BECKER: Yeah. Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: A paid lobbyist for the North Dakota Peace Officers Association helped write the change that allows for nonlethal weapons on unmanned aerial systems. Michael Reitan is the president of that organization. He's also the police chief in the city of West Fargo, N.D. Welcome to the program.
MICHAEL REITAN: Good afternoon.
SIEGEL: Let's deal with this provision about nonlethal weapons or the banning of lethal weapons from drones. When you hear those phrases as a police officer, what practices or potential practices are going through your mind as being affected by that provision?
REITAN: Well, talking to law enforcement agencies that have SWAT teams, they felt that there needed to be an ability to deliver nonlethal munitions into certain situations - a barricaded subject - and the possibility of allowing the use of pepper spray to be deployed from a drone.
Weapons actually come in three different types of category - lethal, which everyone is familiar with as far as a handgun. Less than lethal are those weapons that fire rubber bullets, beanbags, that type of thing - not meant to be lethal, but they could be. And then there's nonlethal, and we talked about pepper spray. My interpretation of the way the bill is written - when it says lethal weapons are prohibited, it would be both the less lethal and the lethal weapons.
SIEGEL: I'd like to hear how you, as a police chief, think about drones. I'm thinking back to - well, it was a very negative reaction, a negative bipartisan reaction when military vehicles appeared in the streets of Ferguson, Mo., and people talked about the militarization of the police. The drone is a weapon of war. I mean, is it something that continues police forces down the road of being more like part of the armed service?
REITAN: And I guess I would argue the point of unmanned aerial systems being weapons of war. There's a recreational vehicle that many in the public have. There are many commercial practices being explored as far as being able to analyze crops, assess damage after disasters. Real estate agents are using them to display homes, so...
SIEGEL: So you're saying there pervasive. They're used for all - they're used for everything nowadays.
REITAN: Well, yes. And certainly, there are many practical, safe, legal things that we can do with drones and not invade the privacy of the individual.
SIEGEL: There were headlines that said North Dakota has legalized Taser drones. Are Tasers in the not-so-lethal or nonlethal category?
REITAN: Well, they're considered nonlethal. But when you start thinking of the logistics of it, the length of the wire attached to the Taser and especially on a unstable drone platform - practically, I don't see it happening. Really, the focus behind an unmanned aerial system is the ability to search wider areas from a position of advantage. If we have somebody that runs off into a cornfield and hides, we would be able to deploy one of these small drones and quickly fly over the cornfield looking down. And that's true life.
SIEGEL: You guys are chasing people through cornfields?
REITAN: Yeah. Not that long ago, an individual escaped from a prison transport vehicle, ran into a cornfield, and he was able to avoid capture. Had they been able to use a drone, they would have been able to fly the area. How they caught him was they came in and combined the corn around him so that he ran out of places to hide.
SIEGEL: Both a North Dakota problem and a North Dakota solution at the same time.
REITAN: There you go.
SIEGEL: Michael Reitan, thanks for talking with us today about it.
REITAN: Well, thank you very much.
SIEGEL: Mr. Reitan is the Chief of Police in West Fargo, N.D., and President of the North Dakota Peace Officers Association. He was talking about a state law in North Dakota regarding the use of unmanned aerial systems or drones by police. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.