On Monday, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection AStar "dusted" a group of environment protestors at a Minnesota pipeline, flying as low as 50 feet agl. A video of the incident quickly went viral on Twitter and has once again shed light on law enforcement use of helicopters for crowd control.
The images clearly show Airbus AStar N3949A—registered to the Air & Marine Division of the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) unit of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and clearly so marked—flying very low over and next to a group of protestors and generating a substantial dust cloud at the site, an oil pipeline pumping station near Park Rapids. AIN reached out to Air & Marine for comment, but as of press time had not received a reply.
Around 1,000 people began arriving at the site early Monday morning in objection to the continued construction of the $3 billion Enbridge Pipeline #3, designed to deliver Canadian heavy crude oil to a terminal in Superior, Wisconsin.
Monday’s incident came less than two weeks after the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) issued a report critical of low-level flights of Army National Guard helicopters that, including a medevac UH-72A Lakota, dusted protestors in Washington, D.C., last June and the 2018 use of a Pennsylvania State Police Bell 407 to break up a large gathering of rowdy tailgaters before a Penn State football game. The Pennsylvania incident generated sufficient debris to injure people on the ground and triggered an FAA investigation.
Low-level flight over persons on the ground is widely accepted as dangerous and not a good practice by helicopter safety experts. Developing standards to use law enforcement helicopters to disperse a protest or control crowds “is not something we would approve,” Don Roby, the training and program manager for the Airborne Public Safety Association (APSA) told AIN.
“We would not write a standard to approve something like that due to the danger of it," he said. "We would never write a standard or a policy that would endanger the public. In law enforcement, you’re at altitude and you’re just observing, you’re just reporting to the commanders, downlinking a video or a thermal imager. In that kind of incident management we’re at 800, 1,200 feet—a safe altitude. The aircraft is there to support the ground units in command and control.”
However, Roby did note that there are law enforcement agencies accredited for airborne use of force, but that generally involves fast-rope deployment of tactical teams or a dedicated sniper on board the aircraft.
In its report on the June 1, 2020 incident in D.C., the DOD IG noted a clear lack of policy with regard to deploying military helicopters in domestic civil disturbances. “We note that no specific training, policies, or procedures were in place for using helicopters to support requests for assistance from civilian authorities in civil disturbances. Although the aircrews were fully trained to fly the helicopters and had read the Rules for the Use of Force (RUF), the rules were tailored to ground operations. Also, the pilots were not trained on integrating and using aviation assets in civil disturbance missions.”
Among the IG’s recommendations: integration of aviation assets into existing civil support mission plans; training on the proper use and restrictions on the use of helicopters to support law enforcement; and mission tracking to record requests, reviews, and decisions to approve or deny the use of military helicopters to support law enforcement.
The IG noted that there were exigent circumstances with relation to the June 1 incident, including widespread arson and looting and the belief by senior military and government officials that national monuments and the White House were endangered. The D.C. National Guard was thus ordered to “flood the box” with all available military assets.