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FOIA: How Police Convinced the FAA to Put a No Fly Zone Over Standing Rock

Published: September 27, 2017
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Source: Motherboard

When last year's Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) protests came to a head, disturbing footage shot by Indigenous drone pilots revealed the extreme brutality of Morton County police.

Using drones, peaceful demonstrators, also called "water protectors," filmed an armored vehicle launching percussion grenades into the crowd; water cannons being fired at civilians; and continued pipeline construction after dark. Their footage helped to expose the military-style tactics used by local law enforcement to suppress dissent—excessive force that is now the subject of a class-action lawsuit filed against Morton County by on behalf of those injured at the Standing Rock protest camp.

At the behest of law enforcement working in the area, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) imposed a temporary flight restriction (TFR) over Standing Rock within a four-mile radius. The restriction applied only to civilians, and was criticized by freedom of speech experts who said the TFR may have violated First Amendment rights of journalists flying in the area.

Motherboard obtained nearly 100 pages of emails between the FAA and federal, state, and local officials, detailing their attempts to misrepresent demonstrators as violent criminals to obtain extended flight restrictions. These documents were provided to us through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request submitted to the FAA in October of last year.

Many of the emails from law enforcement to the FAA attempt to paint demonstrators as violent; one email from Michael Link, director of North Dakota State Radio—a communications system that's part of the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services—requesting a TFR from the FAA noted that the "protest has become violent with protesters organizing and deploying in paramilitary style actions." Throughout the 98 pages, law enforcement on the ground describes the situation in much the same way one would describe a war zone. It's worth noting that incidents of violence by law enforcement far outnumber any that could be connected to demonstrators.

"We need to ensure the movement of law enforcement trying to protect the innocent is not being broadcast live by the use of drones. With today's technology this would be very easy to do with a drone and the camera capabilities," wrote North Dakota Highway Patrol Sgt. Shannon Henke to North Dakota's Department of Emergency Services (DES).

Screenshot of FAA FOIA documents.

The FAA issued the TFR ostensibly because law enforcement officers on the ground were telling the agency that drones presented a persistent threat to police helicopters and police on the ground. However, several of the events cited in emails to the FAA did not occur as described, and an Indigenous journalist who was arrested for flying drones at Standing Rock was later exonerated based on video evidence he presented in court.

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