A Cessna single-engine plane conducted nearly 58 hours of surveillance, more than 38 of them over Buffalo. Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said in a tweet this month that the officers manning that plane helped track down suspects who used an S.U.V. to hit local police on the ground.
Most of the requests did not come from local police departments. In Minneapolis, the call came from an agent in Homeland Security Investigations, the branch of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that conducts longer-term investigations into terrorists, weapons trafficking and drug smuggling.
The agent, who was on the ground in Minneapolis and works with Air and Marine Operations regularly, requested the help on May 28 after reports of arson and violence in the area. Air and Marine Operations, which also dispatches drones from Sierra Vista, Ariz., and Corpus Christi, Texas, was not able to send the aircraft until the next day. After about two hours of surveilling, the agent and other law enforcement agencies said it was no longer needed.
“It’s discretionary, but there’s a huge degree of accountability as far as who can say yes or no to deploying these assets,” said Jonathan Miller, the executive director of the National Air Security Operations at Customs and Border Protection.
Air and Marine Operations officials said agency protocol prevents infringement on the right to protest. The drones, which can stay in the air from 12 to roughly 24 hours depending on how much radar equipment is attached, are directed to fly no lower than 19,000 feet. From that height, the “electrical optical-infrared ball” on the drones wouldn’t allow the operators to see faces, eyes or hair color, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s privacy impact assessment for the aircrafts.
But operators can track movements of protesters or looters, direct law enforcement on the ground and see if someone is wearing a backpack or rifle. And stored footage could be accessed later to corroborate investigative findings, such as a witness account that a fire was set at a given time by a small group or the escape route of a suspect.