Customs and Border Protection drone flew over Minneapolis to provide live video to law enforcement

As protests continued and buildings burned, a US Customs and Border Protection drone flew to Minneapolis on Friday to provide live video to law enforcement on the ground, according to a senior CBP spokesperson.

The agency deployed the unmanned aircraft to help provide “situational awareness” for federal law enforcement partners in Minneapolis, according to the spokesperson. CBP would not specify which agency had asked for the aircraft to be deployed.

Civil rights and government oversight groups raised alarms after the aircraft was discovered circling Minneapolis earlier in the day.

“The government seems to want to be able to be monitoring the crowds and monitoring what people are doing,” said Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. He said this kind of surveillance raises concerns about potential retribution and the chilling effect on protests.

Sometime after the drone arrived in Minneapolis airspace, CBP was told it was no longer needed, according to the spokesperson. The drone then headed back to its home base in North Dakota.

The drone flight came in the wake of protests Thursday night in Minneapolis and some other cities around the country. The protesters were demonstrating against the death of George Floyd, who died Monday in Minneapolis after pleading for help as a police officer pinned him to the ground. There have been multiple protests with looting, fires and other property damage in the city.

Neema Singh Guliani, American Civil Liberties Union senior legislative counsel, said that “no government agency should be facilitating the over-policing of the black community, period. And CBP has no role in what’s happening in Minneapolis at all.”

Guliani called for the agency to immediately stop its use of drones over Minneapolis.

The CBP spokesperson said the agency’s Air and Marine Operations division “routinely” provides support to local law enforcement when requested, as well as support for humanitarian relief efforts. It’s unclear if CBP’s drones have been used previously during or in the aftermath of protests.

The agency informed Congress of the drone flight. CNN reporters in Minneapolis witnessed at least one drone in the airspace above the city.

During the 2015 Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore, the FBI used a manned surveillance plane to fly over the city, said Laperruque. The ACLU obtained FBI records showing that the agency had flown at least 10 surveillance flights over Baltimore that spring.

CBP, which is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, has a policy that permits local, tribal, state or federal agencies to request aerial support, according to a department official.

According to the agency, the drone can provide high-quality streaming video to first responders and “assess critical infrastructure before and after events,” making it “an ideal aircraft to aid in emergency preparations and recovery operations.”