US bans drone flights near Portland buildings at centre of anti-police protests

Protesters near the federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon, early on Wednesday, July 22, 2020. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US authorities have banned drones from flying near federal buildings in Portland, Oregon, saying they believe federal officers have been surveiled by drones during protests against police violence, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokesman said on Wednesday (July 22).

The Federal Aviation Authority has banned drone flights below 1,000 feet (305m) within a nautical mile (1.85km) of Portland's Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building and the US Federal Courthouse at DHS' request, officials said.

These buildings have been a focal point of protests for several weeks, and the federal government has come under criticism in recent days for its response to the protests.

Multiple videos posted online showed camouflage-clad officers without clear identification badges using force and unmarked vehicles to transport arrested protesters, tactics that civil-rights advocates said could violate activists' right to free speech under the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

On several occasions, unidentified drones "flew above people near these buildings where federal law enforcement were deployed to protect critical federal infrastructure," a spokesman for DHS' Federal Protective Service arm said in an email.

He added that drones "can be used to provide information that allows violent opportunists to maneuver around officers, act in the commission of a crime and jeopardise public safety, including the safety of law enforcement officers, demonstrators and other nearby persons."

The spokesman did not immediately respond to questions as to whether law enforcement agents were using their own drones to surveil protesters.

A spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration confirmed that the restriction on drones, which took effect on July 16 and expires Aug 16, was issued at DHS' request.

On Tuesday, Chad Wolf, acting head of the Homeland Security Department, defended federal agents who have cracked down on protesters in Portland, claiming they had been making lawful arrests and properly identifying themselves as law enforcement.

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Local officials in Portland have sharply criticised operations by DHS personnel; Oregon's state attorney-general has filed a lawsuit against federal agencies, saying they seized and detained people without probable cause.

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