Monday, June 17, 2024

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Burlington at forefront of using drones for law enforcement purposes


The future of law enforcement literally touched down in Burlington last month when the city’s police department announced its plans to launch an aerial drone to answer calls for service ahead of the agency’s own officers.

This new “first-response drone,” which could take to the air within the next couple of weeks, has been hailed by Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler as an innovation that would put the city’s police force “light years ahead” of other law enforcement agencies in this area.

Yet, this forthcoming venture isn’t exactly the police department’s first foray into this cutting-edge trend in crime fighting technology.

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Lieutenant Megan Coggins demonstrates one of Burlington’s existing police drones during a training session earlier this spring. The city’s department is currently poised to add a new drone to its fleet that will be able to answer calls for service even before officers arrive on the scene.

Since 2019, Burlington’s police department has relied on remote-controlled drones to handle various tasks that are either too risky or difficult for officers to deal with in person.

Chris Smith, an assistant chief with the city’s police force, concedes that the drones which the department mustered in the early days of this program were a far cry from those that it presently has in the field.

“We started out with baby steps,” he went on to explain in an interview earlier this month. “But we had a vision of where we were going back in 2019 that had anticipated what we’re doing right now.”


The program takes off

Since the program’s debut, Smith said that the department has used to drones in everything from search and rescue operations to foot chases and field reconnaissance. He added that the police force currently has 10 to 11 officers who are certified to operate drones, and a handful of these authorized “pilots” are on rotation in the event that the agency needs someone to take one of the department’s three current drones out for a spin.

According to Travis Grogan, a lieutenant who is directly involved in the department’s drone program, the agency’s current generation of drones boast features like thermal imaging that make them particularly helpful in poor visibility or dense foliage. Grogan added that he and the department’s other drone operators have used these gadgets to track down criminal suspects who would otherwise have been all but impossible for officers to apprehend.

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Burlington patrol officer Bailey King operates a departmental drone from the captain’s chair of his vehicle. King and his fellow police officers are currently required to maintain “line of sight” when they fly drones in the field, although the agency expects to have much greater latitude with its new “first response drone,” pending an anticipated waiver from the federal government.

“We once had a significant event, and we didn’t know where the suspect had run,” the police lieutenant recalled. “But we got some information that he was in a certain area, and we were able to verify that using the drone. Without the drone, we may not have been able to get the suspect at all.”

In addition to searching for human targets, the department also uses its drones to survey the scenes of traffic accidents and scout out the locations of high-risk operations before officers are sent into the fray. Smith said that drones have also proven especially effective as reconnaissance aid before warranted searches. He recalled one case where a drone was actually able to catch someone secreting contraband away from the site of a search just as officers were about to announce themselves at the door.

“We had a search warrant for drugs,” he added, “and we were trying to find the best opportunity for serving the warrant, and one of the individuals must’ve suspected the police were watching them, so they placed some of the drugs on an unwitting person’s property.”


No flight from the Bill of Rights

Smith nevertheless stressed that the department is prohibited from using its drones for casual surveillance or other operations that could infringe on the privacy of the community’s residents.

We all have to follow the Constitution and the Fourth Amendment,” he added. “These things apply on the ground, and they also apply in the air.”

In addition to these Constitutional limits, the department’s drone operators are also subject to other restrictions that don’t apply to your everyday amateur drone pilot. Among other things, the agency’s operators must maintain a “line of sight” connection with their remote-controlled vehicles that limits the effective range of drones in the field. This restriction would ultimately have to be waived for the department’s proposed “first-response” drone, which would be able to travel up to two miles from the operator’s base at the agency’s headquarters.

These rules and regulations are ultimately just one of the things that is drilled into the department’s drone pilots during the week-long training session that’s required for certification. Once an officer has completed this course, he or she must take the FAA’s “Part 107” exam – a standardized test that Grogan deems one of the hardest administered in law enforcement. In the meantime, the police department demands an additional 5 to 8 hours of training each year for drone operators to maintain their certification.

But for those who are willing to put in the time, Burlington’s drone program offers police officers an opportunity to take their careers to new, ever-broadening heights.

“Larger agencies have helicopters that serve as their eyes in the sky,” added Emily Lynn Adkins, a spokeswoman for the city’s police force. “But for us, [the drone program] is a cost-effective way to keep the public safe.”

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