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Police employ Predator drone spy planes on home front

Unmanned aircraft from an Air Force base in North Dakota help local police with surveillance, raising questions that trouble privacy advocates.

December 10, 2011|By Brian Bennett, Washington Bureau

In North Dakota, Janke learned about the Predators last spring after local law enforcement was invited to a briefing on how two Customs and Border Protection drones based at the Grand Forks air base could assist police. He immediately saw advantages.

"We don't have to go in guns blazing," the sheriff said in a telephone interview. "We can take our time and methodically plan out what our approach should be."

Macki, head of the regional SWAT team, decided drones were ideal for spotting suspects in the vast prairie, where grassy plains stretch to the horizon except for trees planted to stem erosion from the winds.

"Anything where we need an advantage, we try to give them a call," said Macki, who declined to specify how often or where he has used the Predators. "We are very fortunate to have them in our area willing to assist us."

The first known use was June 23 after Janke drove up to the Brossart farm with a search warrant for cattle that supposedly had strayed from a neighboring ranch. The sheriff says he was ordered off the property at gunpoint.

The six adult Brossarts allegedly belonged to the Sovereign Citizen Movement, an antigovernment group that the FBI considers extremist and violent. The family had repeated run-ins with local police, including the arrest of two family members earlier that day arising from their clash with a deputy over the cattle.

Janke requested help from the drone unit, explaining that an armed standoff was underway. A Predator was flying back from a routine 10-hour patrol along the Canadian border from North Dakota to Montana. It carried extra fuel, so a pilot sitting in a trailer in Grand Forks turned the aircraft south to fly over the farm, about 60 miles from the border.

For four hours, the Predator circled 10,000 feet above the farm. Parked on a nearby road, Janke and the other officers watched live drone video and thermal images of Alex, Thomas and Jacob Brossart — and their mother, Susan — on a hand-held device with a 4-inch screen.

The glowing green images showed people carrying what appeared to be long rifles moving behind farm equipment and other barriers. The sheriff feared they were preparing an ambush, and he decided to withdraw until daybreak. The Predator flew back to its hangar.

At 7 a.m. the next day, the Predator launched again and flew back to the farm. The drone crew was determined to help avoid a bloody confrontation. No one wanted another Ruby Ridge, the 1992 shootout between the FBI and a family in rural Idaho that killed a 14-year-old boy, a woman and a deputy U.S. marshal.

This time, Janke watched the live Predator feed from his office computer, using a password-protected government website called Big Pipe.

Around 10 a.m., the video showed the three Brossart brothers riding all-terrain vehicles toward a decommissioned Minuteman ballistic missile site at the edge of their property. The sensor operator in Grand Forks switched to thermal mode, and the image indicated the three men were unarmed.

Janke signaled the SWAT team to move in and make the arrests. No shots were fired.

A search of the property turned up four rifles, two shotguns, assorted bows and arrows and a samurai sword, according to court records. Police also found the six missing cows, valued at $6,000.

Rodney Brossart, his daughter Abby and his three sons face a total of 11 felony charges, including bail jumping and terrorizing a sheriff, as well as a misdemeanor count against Rodney involving the stray cattle. All have been released on bail. Calls to Rodney Brossart were not returned Saturday. The family is believed to be living on the farm.

brian.bennett@latimes.com

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