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Most have heard about the unmanned aerial vehicles, or “drones,” that the U.S. government has been flying over Pakistan and Afghanistan dropping bombs aimed at suspected militants and all too often killing innocent civilians. Increasingly, smaller versions of these planes are being purchased by police agencies, border control, and homeland security to use domestically. Rather than carrying weapons, they are outfitted with cameras allowing them to become an all-seeing eye in the sky.
In April 2012, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a list of 63 launch sites approved to fly drones over U.S. airspace, although since 2006 they have issued between 700-750 operating licenses. Not included on the list was Champaign County, home to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where the Sheriff has owned a drone since 2008. A Freedom of Information Act request turned up dozens of documents detailing why the Sheriff of a small Midwestern college town would want one of these mini-drones.
Lately, Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh has frequently been in the news. In 2011, it was discovered that Walsh was participating in “Secure Communities,” a controversial program to detain undocumented residents for 48 hours while a background check was performed by Homeland Security. The majority of those caught in this dragnet were found to be held for low-level offenses, not the hardened criminals said to be the focus of the program. (In March 2012, due to public pressure, the Sheriff ended his participation in Secure Communities). The Sheriff has also been stumping for the construction of an expanded jail possibly reaching a cost of $20 million. The discovery of his purchase of a drone, without approval of the Champaign County Board, is further evidence of his aggressive policing.
Good Men Doing Something
The Sheriff’s initial interest in a drone came from a search-and-rescue mission in 2007 to locate Naomi Arnette, a woman whose remains were discovered in a small town outside of Champaign. Gene Robinson, of the Texas-based RP Flight Systems (later renamed RP Search Services), was called in to fly his drone as part of a search team. Impressed by the high-tech gadget, the Sheriff wanted one of his own. It was the end of the fiscal year and there was about $3,000 in drug forfeiture money that had to be spent. Lieut. Shane Cook contacted Robinson, who also sold his manufactured drones. Robinson replied promptly with a quote and some promotional material.
Before buying the drone, Sheriff Walsh made sure he would not have to clear it with the Champaign County Board. He first ran the idea by county attorney Susan McGrath. McGrath said that the previous month an amendment was added to the purchasing policy stating that if an item cost $5,000-$20,000 and the company had offered the same contract to another unit of government, it did not require approval from the board. In an email dated March 11, 2008, Walsh said, “The price is a little under $10,000. I do not know about any other contracts. I’ll try to find out.”
The Sheriff asked Lieut. Cook to see if bids for the drone had gone out to other government agencies. Gene Robinson said that he was “making some inroads” with Border Patrol and the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. There had also been interest on the West Coast for fire support, and from the Department of Homeland Security. According to Robinson, they had given several demonstrations and met with “more agencies out there than I can remember.” Cook followed up to ask if they had sold a drone to anyone. If so, their attorney had advised that they could “pony” on the contract “and not have [a] bid from other companies.” Robinson said he had sold two drones to emergency teams in his area of central Texas. After finding out that no other company sold a comparable “tactical” drone, the Sheriff was able to offer Robinson a no-bid contract.
According to a purchase order, on March 19, 2008, Walsh bought a “Spectra” drone. The plane has a wing span of 48 inches and weighs up to six pounds with equipment. On the belly of the plane is a camera system capable of providing three-dimensional live video streaming. [See video of Gene Robinson flying drone.]
In an email dated May 19, 2008, Lieutenant Ed Ogle asked Robinson for guidelines to operating the plane. Interestingly, the quote at the bottom of Ogle’s email reads, “All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win in this world, are for enough good people to do nothing.” Apparently, the Sheriff and his men are doing something with this drone to stomp out evil. At this time, the use of drones domestically was still new and relatively unregulated. Robinson replied to Ogle, “Since we are pretty much on the leading edge, we have some latitude in specific departmental procedures, but for the most part, everyone has accepted our guidelines and flight procedures.”
In September 2008, the drone was finally shipped to Illinois, but there was a question of whether it could be insured. As the Sheriff’s insurance agent said, “this is a first that we see this type of surveillance technology used by a county.”
The drone’s “first voyage” was scheduled for January 22, 2009. Where or when it was flown is unknown. Lieut. Cook was trying to gain permission from the ROTC to fly it in their armory. In the meantime, he was flying it on his parents’ property.
The first to learn how to operate the plane, which required many hours of training, was Lucas Munds, of the Sheriff’s “Street Crimes Unit” (SCU), a drug unit. The drone was primarily to be used by the SCU and the separate investigations unit. Travis Burr, from investigations, was initially assigned to the team of pilots, but in 2010 he was dismissed after being charged with a DUI.
The drone was only flown for a few months before, in May 2009, it crashed and received water damage. It was sent to Texas for repair and returned in October. In September 2010, it was broken again and returned to the manufacturer. Shortly after, Lucas Munds resigned from the Sheriff’s department and they had to start from scratch. In the Spring of 2011, the plane was once again sent back to Texas after failing to work.
By 2011, the Sheriff was preparing to apply for a Certificate of Authority (COA) with the FAA. There were requirements that the drone not be flown within five miles of any airport and be clear of and Military Operations Areas. In May 2011, Gene Robinson said that Mesa County, Colorado, got permission to fly a drone in their “ENTIRE” county and recommended that Walsh “go for the same.” Walsh replied, “Be nice if [the drone] worked at all! Whole county―wow.”
I filed a FOIA for a copy of the COA, but received a letter on Oct. 11 that said the record did not exist, but added, “It is to be understood that this does not mean that the records do not exist under another spelling, another name, or under another classification.”
Getting in the Drone Game
Correspondence further indicates that the Sheriff was on the cutting edge of this new trend. In an email dated May 22, 2011, Robinson wrote to Lieut. Ogle, “Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you guys were WAAAaaay ahead of the pack in getting your UA [Unmanned Aerial]. Seems like more and more PD’s and SO’s are getting in the drone game.”
I spoke to Robinson on the phone on October 23, 2012 and he told me that he is getting is getting interest from the Army Corps of Engineers, research agencies, in addition to other law enforcement agencies. When asked how many drones he had sold, he said, “about a dozen.”
Indeed, Sheriff Walsh may be looking for a second drone. In February 2012, Lieut. Cook sent the Sheriff a link to a website for a drone called the “Nighthawk,” costing $30-40,000. The link was provided by John Dwyer, of the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency, whose wife’s company makes the drone.
There is also evidence that the Sheriff has been monitoring the increased use of drones across the country. In April 2012, his new pilot, investigator Andrew Good, sent a story from Fox News about the growing popularity of drones. Later that month, Jail Superintendent Allen Jones sent the Sheriff a news story about a police chief in Alabama who was surprised learn that his officers had purchased a $150,000 drone, after the FAA released its list of 63 agencies certified to fly drones. In the subject of the email, Jones had written, “We are not on the list….” Apparently, the Sheriff and his men are also concerned with keeping their names out of the press.
From the documents provided, it looks as if the Sheriff’s drone has been downed by mechanical failures as much as it has been in the air. According to a flight log obtained, the Sheriff’s drone was flown four times between November 2011 and May 2012, all for training purposes only. Two of the flights were “Non-Successful,” with the most recent one ending in a crash. They were flown in the park outside the Brookens County Administrative building and at a park in the nearby city of St. Joseph.
While there may be beneficial uses of a drone, there is good reason to believe the Sheriff will mostly be using the drone to track down suspected drug dealers. Given other racial disparities in the local criminal justice system, it is likely that African Americans and Latinos will be the ones being watched. But even Sheriff Walsh’s own conservative friends should be worried about this kind of Big Brother surveillance.