An Israeli Company Is Hawking Its Self-Launching Drone System to U.S. Police Department

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by Delany Nolan, published on The Intercept, May 17, 2024

In East Baton Rouge, High Lander and Stephenson Technologies integrated the drone platform “with the city of Baton Rouge’s citywide system of gunshot sensors” for testing by the sheriff’s department, according to High Lander’s website. In a December post about the project, the company quoted an employee who said “it was a great feeling to see that first autonomous dispatch.

The city uses ShotSpotter, a gunshot detection technology recently dropped by the city of Chicago due to critiques of racist bias and inaccuracy.

The East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office has long been accused of mistreating and harassing people of color — including using acoustic weapons on protesters without proper training — raising concerns among local advocates about its use of Orion.

When Israeli security tech is exported to the United States, it is “used to surveil and criminalize, mostly, young Black boys,” said Blumberg. Pointing to other types of surveillance technology, including facial recognition, Blumberg added, “There’s actually no statistical evidence that it helps prevent crimes” or “that it helps make people safer.”

The head of training at the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office, Carl Dabadie, participated in a police training program in Israel about a decade ago — and promised to bring his learnings back to the local community.

The Anti-Defamation League invited Dabadie, then the chief of the Baton Rouge Police Department, to attend a National Counter-Terrorism Seminar in Israel in 2014. Seeking airfare for the training, Dabadie said there are “several terrrist targets” [sic] in Baton Rouge, apparently referring to local oil refineries, according to a document obtained through a public records request. He returned from the eight-day seminar, during which participants visited an Israeli police department in Jerusalem and a border outpost, and told local media he had plans to update the department’s riot gear.

Instead of real bullets and shooting at people, they use foam bullets, tear gas, shields, and even paintballs,” he enthused.

Dabadie left the police department in the wake of his violent handling of protests over the 2016 police killing of Alton Sterling, which earned condemnations from Amnesty International and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association. Still, Dabadie defended “our militarized tactics and our militarized law enforcement.” In 2020, he was made head of training for the sheriff’s office.

Protesters and civil rights groups sued several police departments and officials, including Dabadie and East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux III, for violating their civil rights during the 2016 protests.

In court proceedings stemming from one of the lawsuits, an officer testified that police had “fooled around” with a crowd-dispersing acoustic weapon and used it against protesters without sufficient training. (Those plaintiffs were awarded a $1.2 million settlement last year.)

The lawyer who filed that lawsuit, William Most, told The Intercept that the sheriff’s department’s track record makes him concerned about its use of an autonomous drone system.

Given EBRSO’s past trouble in complying with the Constitution, I would be concerned about it adopting a drone program without clear safeguards to protect the rights of Baton Rouge residents,” said Most.

In Israel, meanwhile, High Lander’s business has flourished amid Israel’s retaliatory war on Gaza. After October 7, Israel passed an emergency measure saying that civilian drones can return to the skies only if they are connected to an approved unmanned traffic management, or UTM, system. High Lander became the first approved UTM system in Israel. (The country’s Air Force previously tested the company’s drone technology.)

The drones have “counter-drone” measures that can take over and land enemy drones, and detect the location of their controllers. In an April presentation, High Lander’s co-founder Alon Abelson, a former Israeli Air Force commander, describes a scenario in which Orion allows users to deploy “hundreds of PTZ [pan-tilt-zoom] cameras that hover and relay images from the air,” a surveillance capacity he described as unprecedented.

The company relies on hundreds of sensors around Israel, Abelson said in his talk, allowing them to turn drone fleets “into part of an information-sharing system that did not exist before.” The system allows settlements’ drones to automatically launch from chargers when triggered by cameras, smoke detectors, or “smart fences.” Since October 7, he said, “we have provided this system to hundreds of settlements throughout the country.”

*Featured Image: Illustration: The Intercept; Photos: Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images, “Baton Rouge – Capitol Gardens” by Dennis Flax. Used under CC BY 2.0

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