U.S. CBP investigating low flight over pipeline protesters

Avatar for Dan ParsonsBy Dan Parsons | June 10, 2021

Estimated reading time 7 minutes, 19 seconds.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is investigating an incident in which one of its helicopters flew low over protestors this week in Minnesota, billowing dust over them with its rotor downwash. 

The incident occurred June 7 when a CBP AS350 helicopter was called in to help local law enforcement deal with people protesting the Enbridge Energy pipeline project in Minnesota. 

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Grand Forks responded to a local law enforcement request for assistance to address a gathering of people who were reported to have trespassed on private property,” a CBP spokesperson said in a statement emailed to Vertical. “CBP’s headquarters is investigating the facts to determine precisely what occurred and whether the actions taken were justified. All appropriate actions will be taken based on the facts that are learned, including with respect to the incident itself as well as the agency’s applicable policies and procedures.”

A screen grab from a video posted to Twitter shows a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter flying low over protesters. Evan Frost video

A video of the flight shared on Twitter and other social media platforms shows the helicopter in a low hover, moving sideways near a group of protesters gathered at a construction site. The so-called “water protectors” are protesting Canada-based Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 oil pipeline, which funnels oil from Alberta through Minnesota to Wisconsin.

As the helicopter nears the activists at a very low altitude it begins to kick up a cloud of dust that engulfs the people on the ground, according to the video shot by photojournalist Evan Frost. Frost says in a Twitter post that at least two dozen activists are chained to construction equipment inside the pipeline pump station overflown by the helicopter. 

The Northern Lights Task force, a coalition of 17 Minnesota sheriff’s departments, said the helicopter was called in to order protesters to leave over a loudspeaker and that unusually dry conditions caused an unintentional dust-up. In a brief June 8 Facebook post, the task force insisted the low flight was not intended to disperse protesters. 

“A helicopter from U.S. Customs and Border Protection was brought in today to issue a dispersal order to a large group of people in the area of Two Inlets Pump Station by Park Rapids, MN,” the task force posted on Facebook. “The idea was to provide the order in a manner that everyone would be able to hear.”

Enlarged screen captures taken from Frost’s video show a passenger in the back of the CBP helicopter taking photos through the cabin window on a smartphone camera.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection AS350 helicopter. CBP Photo

“Unforeseen to local law enforcement and due to the extremely dry conditions, dust kicked up in the area,” the task force added. “As soon as helicopter staff saw what was happening, they immediately left the area to ensure no further issues would be caused. This was not an intentional act to cause discomfort or intended as a dispersal mechanism.”

Both the video and the subsequent explanation by law enforcement immediately drew criticism and comparisons to an incident in June 2020 when two D.C. Army National Guard helicopters flew as low as 40 feet over protesters in downtown Washington, D.C. Hovering below the rooftops of D.C.’s low-lying buildings, a UH-60 Black Hawk and a UH-72 medevac helicopter both performed “show of force” maneuvers to intimidate and scatter crowds gathered to protest the police killing of George Floyd.

Typically used in combat zones to dissolve unruly crowds that could be harboring insurgents, the maneuver is rarely done over civilians in the U.S. and is inherently unsafe above crowded, cluttered areas. 

An investigation into the D.C. incident by the Army’s Inspector General faulted Army superiors for providing clear guidance to helicopter crews on how to conduct flight operations in response to domestic civil unrest. The Army has said some soldiers were disciplined but has not specified who, at what level of command, or what the consequences were. 

Ultimately, the Army IG concluded that “all aircrew members acted in good faith and executed all activities within the mission set as they understood it under the pressures of 1 June 2020.”

A later Defense Department review of the Army’s investigation upheld that conclusion, saying the Army IG’s “analysis of the facts was reasonable based on the available evidence in this case and the declared emergency nature of the situation on June 1, 2020.” 

“The evidence supports a determination that the decision … to use helicopters in support of the civil disturbance operation based on the emergent nature of the situation and broad directions from the President of the United States (POTUS), the Secretary of Defense (SD), and the Secretary of the Army (SECARMY) was reasonable.”

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1 Comment

  1. Inexcusable behaviour by this CBP helicopter pilot, the pilot must have seen the cloud of dust being kicked up and should not have been anywhere close to the crowd. Any civilian pilot would have received a mandatory violation for this disregard of aviation regulations.
    Tom K

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