Connecticut Could Break Ground on Armed Police Drones

Some say that if Connecticut becomes the first state to allow law enforcement to use weaponized drones, it would set a dangerous precedent.

(TNS) -- Connecticut could become the first state to allow police and other law enforcement agencies to use weaponized drones, which some say would set a dangerous precedent in a state that lays claim to being the birthplace of manned flight.

For the second consecutive year, the Legislature is considering a proposed ban on the use of unmanned aircraft to release tear gas or explosives, as well as to fire weapons remotely.

But one of the state’s leading aviation legal experts says the state House version of a bill pending before the Public Safety and Security Committee includes language that could exempt police from the ban.

Not only would the measure give law enforcement unprecedented firepower, he warns, but House Bill 5274 (An Act Concerning the Use of Drones) could conflict with federal aviation laws.

“Do we want to be known as the state with best drone law as a model for other states, or do we want to be known as the state with the most idiotic drone law?” said Peter Sachs, author of the Drone Law Journal and a former helicopter pilot from Branford.

There is renewed urgency in Connecticut to regulate drones after a Central Connecticut State University student posted a video on YouTube last July of a homemade drone firing a handgun. Austin Haughwout was arrested and expelled from school, which he is contesting in a lawsuit filed this week in state Superior Court in New Britain.

Law-enforcement options

Members of the law enforcement community say they aren’t pursuing weaponized drones, but acknowledged that they would hate to have that option taken away, with technology ever-changing.

“We are not enthusiastic about going down this road, but we just feel it may be inevitable,” said Paul Fitzgerald, legislative committee co-chair for the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association.

Fitzgerald is police chief in Berlin.

“If someone were to put an explosive on a drone and say, ‘I’m going to crash it into an aircraft in the Northeast,’ ... what does law enforcement do in a situation like that?” Fitzgerald said. “I know it’s a little far-fetched, but there’s TV shows out there showing weaponized drones. Don’t tie one hand behind our back ...”

In contrast to last year’s bill, which passed unanimously in the Senate but died in the House during budget deliberations, the current version includes the wording “except otherwise provided by law” in the proposed ban.

“I do think it would be a dangerous precedent to allow for weaponized drones,” said state Rep. Caroline Simmons, D-Stamford, a Public Safety Committee member.

Simmons couched her comments to say it’s not a black-and-white issue, however.

“Whenever we’re talking about drones as legislators, we need to be cognizant about striking a balance of protecting people’s privacy and civil liberties, while at the same time making sure that law enforcement has the tools they need to counter crime in our communities,” Simmons said.

State Rep. J.P. Sredzinski, R-Monroe, who also serves on the committee and is the public safety dispatch supervisor for the town of Stratford, was receptive to giving law enforcement flexibility.

“If there’s a drone in a courtyard of a building and it’s shooting people, then we need to fight fire with fire,” Sredzinski said. “The more I’m talking about this, the more it sounds like a ‘Robocop’ movie. If there’s a law enforcement exception in there, then so be it. As long as it’s used in the right way.”

It’s unclear who added new language to the legislation, on which Sachs has previously consulted lawmakers and submitted testimony.

Uncertain future

Last year, North Dakota passed a law allowing police to outfit drones with non-lethal weapons. Connecticut could go one step further, said Sachs, who operates drones as a hobby.

“They rightfully claim that weaponized drones are dangerous — ‘nobody should have them,’ ” Sachs said of law enforcement. “In another breath, ‘but it’s OK for us to have them.’ There’s no justification for it, whatsoever. I would hope calmer heads would prevail.”

State Police declined to comment on the matter, saying it would be premature, since the bill is pending.

Connecticut is quick to boast that Gustave Whitehead, a Bridgeport resident, pioneered manned flight, ahead of the Wright brothers.

Fitzgerald said none of the police departments in the state currently have drones or plan to use them. Local police are responsible for investigating drone complaints, but enforcement powers rest with the Federal Aviation Administration.

“I’m told it was a popular gift at Christmas time,” Fitzgerald said of drones. “I think we will get more complaints about drones as they become popular. We don’t know where it’s going to go.”

©2016 the Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, Conn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.