A controversial Arizona sheriff now wants to add unmanned drones to his arsenal in patrolling Maricopa County – an area almost nine times the size of Rhode Island.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has become a lightning rod for his views on illegal immigration, told ABC News that the primary use of the lightweight aircraft will be for drug enforcement and to patrol his 2,000-inmate tent city jail.
“We do have contraband sometimes thrown over the fence. That was my main mission,” Arpaio said. “I talked to my Drug Enforcement Unit and they would love to have a drone to go after drug traffickers coming into our county from Mexico.”
Arpaio has gained national attention for his controversial stance on cracking down on illegal immigration. Some fear he’ll use the drones to apprehend undocumented immigrants. But Arpaio stressed that the drones would be used as a tool in his war on drugs.
“We have danger out there. We have dope peddlers shooting each other and I have my deputies to worry about,” he said.
The use of drones among law enforcement is one the rise, said Alessandra Soler, executive director of ACLU Arizona, noting that the trend raises concerns about privacy.
“The problem and the areas that we are concerned about is that drones are extremely powerful surveillance tools and they could capture information on not just the target, but, everyone else who happens to be nearby underneath the drone as it travels to the target area,” Soler told ABC News.
“What we don’t want is for government and for law enforcement agencies to use this technology to go on fishing expeditions and to collect all kinds of information that’s not relevant to those legitimate law enforcement purposes,” she added.
Arpaio said the concerns are unfounded.
“I think there’s a lot of people concerned that we were going to fly over their house, city streets, and be a big brother. That’s not what this is for,” Arpaio said.
The sheriff said he’s in the process of securing approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly the drones and is raising the money to fund two units, which cost over $5,000 apiece. The funding for the two will come from donations and primarily through money seized from drug busts, he said.
Several city law enforcement agencies already use drones as a crime-fighting tool. If approved, Maricopa County would be the 22nd local law enforcement agency in the country and the first in Arizona to use unmanned drones. Arpaio said he doesn’t understand why he’s getting so much attention.
“I guess anything this sheriff does, I draw controversy as you probably know by my history,” he said. “But that doesn’t stop me. I do what I’m going to do, what’s good to protect the public and catch law violators.”
Several states have passed laws that protect privacy rights and limit the use of drones, according to the ACLU.
“These drones are an example of how our technology is completely outpacing our privacy laws,” Soler said. “It allows us to kind of circumvent the Fourth Amendment and use these technologies, which are extremely intrusive, without having to go to a court.”
Arpaio said the drones are just another law enforcement tool. “I can’t see much difference from the drone and the patrol car or a helicopter, because we have helicopters flying over the area trying to spot people,” he said.
Drones can also assist in search and rescue missions as well as photograph crime scenes that could be hard to get to in the 9,000-square-mile desert terrain he patrols, Arpaio said.
“The border patrol — they use drones,” Arpaio noted. “So, what’s the big deal with me starting this program, which would be the only one in Arizona, but, so what? I do a lot of things that are first.”