Police Kill Suspects With Snipers All The Time--Why Not Drones?

Deadly force laws don't specify which weapons may be used to kill a suspect.

A drone produced by the French Fly-n-Sense company flies over Mont-de-Marsan, in southwestern France, as firefighters test it.
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Could law enforcement ever use a drone to kill an American? The answer to that question was the basis for Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster of the confirmation of CIA Director John Brennan earlier this week. Police use deadly force to kill Americans if they feel they are threatened, but it's unclear if they could use a drone instead of, say, a sniper rifle to take out a hostage-taker if they felt it was the safest way to do so.

Paul's filibuster was essentially a response to Attorney General Eric Holder's statement that, under extreme circumstances, a drone could be used to target people in the United States. Holder said it is "possible" for President Obama to "authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States."

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Paul told Fox News that he was worried drone strikes could occur when "you're eating dinner in your house."

That may seem a little far-fetched, but it's something that experts are thinking about as drones become more common in America's skies. According to the 1985 Supreme Court case Tennessee v. Garner, police may not use deadly force "unless … the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others." But that decision didn't establish what weapons law enforcement can use to carry that out, according to Mark Lomax, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association.

"If a police officer is justified by law to use deadly force, then I don't think there's any particular way they can or cannot use certain weaponry to save a life," he says. "I don't think it matters whether it's a sniper or a vehicle or a drone."

Lomax says law enforcement agencies nationwide are still figuring out how to deploy drones, and that there's going to be "a lot of discussion about the issue over the next few years."

Critics of America's drone program overseas point to the large number of civilian casualties caused by drone strikes, so it's unclear under what circumstances an unmanned aerial vehicle might be safer to use than a sniper. Even if such a situation were to arise, Jonathan Villasenor, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says police use of an armed drone would be a "terrible idea."

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"I can't imagine that there are any police departments in the country that would want to deploy that kind of technology," he says. "It would raise enormous ethical issues, including creating substantial risks that innocent people would be killed."

It's doubtful that any state or local police departments would ever get their hands on an armed drone—the Federal Aviation Administration has said that they don't plan to authorize anyone to fly an armed drone.

The Posse Comitatus Act, which prevents the federal government from using military forces to enforce state laws, should, in theory, prevent the military from using its drones in the country. But agencies such as Customs and Border Patrol and the FBI have used drones domestically for surveillance. The FBI's SWAT and Hostage Rescue Teams regularly deal with situations where deadly force might be necessary.

The FBI did not respond to request for comment about the possibility of using armed drones in the country.

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