The Department of Homeland Security says US authorities have banned drones from flying near federal buildings in Portland because they believe drones are surveilling federal officers at protests there, Reuters reports. The order comes a few weeks after federal agencies were discovered using surveillance drones themselves, over peaceful protests in Minneapolis and other US cities.
The agency said unidentified drones have flown over crowds of people protesting near federal buildings in Portland on several occasions. For the past eight weeks, protesters have marched in downtown Portland to push for police reforms, and in recent days have been joined by federal troops guarding the federal buildings. The troops have used tear gas and pepper spray and say the protesters have thrown projectiles at them.
The drone ban is in place until August 16th and covers flights below 1,000 feet within a nautical mile of the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building and the US Federal Courthouse. The current Federal Aviation Administration rules prohibit flying recreational drones over people or moving vehicles, at night, or at heights above 400 feet from the ground, so if drones were flying over Portland protesters as federal officials claim, they already were violating the FAA rules and operators could have been cited. The geofencing systems built into some drones might literally keep them from taking off in a federally restricted zone, but it depends on the designation.
The Trump administration has said federal officers were deployed to Portland to protect federal buildings, including the courthouse which has been tagged with graffiti and had windows broken. But as Vox notes, heavily armed troops have been captured on video detaining demonstrators and putting them in unmarked vehicles, and they are often nowhere near federal property where federal troops would have jurisdiction.
Last month, members of Congress requested information about federal agencies’ use of drones over protesters in several cities, demanding that they “cease any and all surveilling of Americans engaged in peaceful protests.” The letter referred to a May incident where a Predator surveillance drone from Customs and Border Protection circled above protests in Minneapolis.
Portland banned its police bureau from cooperating with federal law enforcement on Wednesday, the same day federal officers used tear gas on a crowd outside the federal courthouse, The Oregonian reported. Among that crowd was Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.