Amid drone debate, police spend millions on spy planes

Pilatus PC-12 NG Spectre
A Pilatus PC-12 NG Spectre in flight.

Credit: Pilatus Aircraft Ltd.

While the nation disputes if, when and where the government should use drones over U.S. soil, Texas state police are taking their surveillance efforts to the next level.

In a little-noticed July purchase, officials at the Texas Department of Public Safety inked a $7.4 million contract with the Swiss company Pilatus Aircraft Ltd. for a high-altitude spy plane. Unique technology affixed to the state’s new aircraft could raise the ire of civil libertarians and privacy advocates.

Among its features is a $1 million array of surveillance cameras with high-resolution and thermal-imaging capabilities, and a $300,000 downlink system that enables the plane’s crew to send real-time surveillance images anywhere in the state, according to records obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting through the Texas Public Information Act. The package will also come with four sets of night-vision goggles worth about $60,000, records show.

The latest fleet addition for Texas has a single engine instead of two, which saves on costs while still permitting a relatively large payload. The Pilatus cabin is also pressurized so it can fly at higher altitudes, up to 30,000 feet in the air.

Texas state police spokesman Tom Vinger said most of the plane’s missions will be carried out on the border between the United States and Mexico, and "serve as a tool in assisting specific joint operations that are clearly defined by area and duration.”

Known as the Pilatus PC-12 NG Spectre [PDF], the company says it was conceived specifically in response to demand from law enforcement. Authorities in Texas expect the aircraft to arrive after modifications sometime next year.

Leonard Luke, vice president of government business for Pilatus, which has operations in Colorado, said the aircraft was developed because both federal and local law enforcement “inquired about the possibility of a surveillance-type platform.” 

Texas politicians have long asserted that Washington wasn’t doing enough to secure the nation’s boundary with Mexico. The Lone Star State has reportedly devoted $600 million in taxpayer money to beef up the border since 2007, according to news accounts.

No one has benefited more than the Texas Department of Public Safety, which formed military-esque Ranger Reconnaissance Teams, constructed intelligence command centers and procured high-speed gunboats with .30-caliber, fully automatic machine guns.

“Our law enforcement strategy continues to adapt to the evolving threats around us, including the tactics of ruthless drug cartels and transnational gangs,” Vinger said. “ … We have a responsibility to protect and serve Texans, and we simply cannot meet tomorrow’s threats with yesterday’s strategy.”

The Texas state police purchase may be just the beginning for police departments around the country and lead to the same complaints critics have made about drones and dragnet surveillance.

Congressional researchers in September examined [PDF] how the Fourth Amendment might affect the use of drones domestically and the surveillance technology that accompanies them. In a 2001 case, the Supreme Court ruled police cannot use thermal imaging to “look” inside someone’s home for heat produced by marijuana cultivation. Other rulings have held that police can use aircraft to hunt for illegal activity in a resident’s yard if anyone else could easily witness it by flying overhead.

“Piloted or unpiloted, the issues posed are the same,” said Jim Dempsey, vice president for public policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology in San Francisco. “Does the use of the technology constitute a ‘search’ under the Fourth Amendment? Regardless of whether it does or not, what checks and balances do we think are appropriate for the use of such technology?”

In January, Supreme Court justices handed down a landmark privacy decision that argued monitoring over a long period of time could impinge on the expectation of privacy, partly because continued surveillance reveals so much about an individual.

Experts are now asking what 21st-century law enforcement tools may require a warrant.

“Currently, (drones) carry high-megapixel cameras and thermal imaging, and will soon have the capacity to see through walls and ceilings,” according to a September report from the Congressional Research Service, which provides nonpartisan legal and policy analysis to lawmakers. “These technologies are not generally available to the public, and under current jurisprudence, their use by law enforcement would probably constitute a search covered by the Fourth Amendment.”

However, public access might not be an issue for long. High-powered digital technologies evolve rapidly enough that costs will decrease, argued Tomas Mijares, a Texas State University criminal justice professor and former Detroit police officer. Thermal imagery, he added, is often critical for locating injured and stranded people when visibility is poor.  

Until the courts can provide more clarity, Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology said, lawmakers must establish a set of rules, starting with how surveillance images are used and how long they are stored.

Texas state police spokesman Vinger said in a statement that the department will comply with applicable legal standards.

Not to be outdone by Texas, the Phoenix Police Department acquired its own $4.1 million Pilatus PC-12 in 2009, complete with an $800,000 high-definition camera that operates in the dark and features “ultra long-range imaging performance,” according to the surveillance system’s manufacturer and records obtained from the Federal Aviation Administration. It’s also capable of transmitting live video feeds to the ground “for surveillance tasks and other public safety applications,” FAA documents show.

Department spokesman Sgt. Trent Crump said the plane serves numerous purposes: monitoring protests and barricaded suspects, covert surveillance of investigative targets, extraditing criminal defendants and transporting detectives in emergency situations.

They rely on the Pilatus to stay airborne for extended periods of time and to climb above restricted areas over Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. As far as the department is concerned, Crump said, current case law doesn’t affect its ability to carry out surveillance flights.

“If you’re needing an eye on a possible homicide suspect or watching somebody you maybe didn’t have probable cause on yet, those are cases we have to solve. Those are ones we’re responsible for,” Crump said.

Using a private company, police in Los Angeles began surveillance flights [PDF] in August with a small Cessna plane that can linger in the air for as long as 10 hours a day and send live video to a dispatch center. The program will reportedly cost taxpayers $90,000 per month after an initial one-year $1.3 million contract expires.

Years ago, police broached the idea of using drones for public safety, but federal aviation regulators are only now beginning to provide meaningful guidance, said Sid Heal, a former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department commander and SWAT unit head.

“The ability to use (drones) is still so cumbersome that they do not compete on an equal basis with manned aircraft – so much so that it is not only easier, but probably cheaper, to use pilots and aircraft,” Heal said.  

Vinger said his department’s own experiment with unmanned aircraft ended in the fall of 2010 due to complicated FAA rules, maintenance costs and “deficient video quality.”

Aside from state and municipal law enforcement, Pilatus aircraft are registered with federal government agencies that commonly carry out surveillance missions.

The Air Force Special Operations Command has 10 Pilatus aircraft it uses for “tactical airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance,” first purchased for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Department of Homeland Security has three of them with cameras that can operate during both day and nighttime conditions. An agency spokeswoman said they are used for border security operations. In addition, the department has a fleet of 10 unmanned drones in its possession or on order. 

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