Government agencies have taken an interest in drones, including highway management, search and rescue, and law enforcement.
Police and sheriff departments are using drones to more efficiently analyze scenes of accidents, perform search and rescue on missing persons, inspect a whole situation without putting anyone at risk, and on the more controversial side, monitor the public.
This article will discuss how police departments are using drones to benefit society, to make law enforcement safer, and how the lines of reasonable expectations of privacy are being blurred with the usage of drones in law enforcement.
Using drones in armed combatant and hostage situations
Knowing is half the battle. Just as the military uses drones for reconnaissance, so does law enforcement. Civilian and officer safety is paramount in any situation, and drones allow for risk-free reconnaissance.
Officer safety is often overlooked when thinking about law enforcement. Just as the people law enforcement officers interact with may be concerned for their safety, so too are the law enforcement officers.
Law enforcement departments of all kinds have begun implementing drones, both aerial and ground-based, to scope out hostile interactions in and around structures, especially when a hostage situation or armed criminal situation occurs.
Speaking with the Sheriff of a small county department on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, he revealed to me that these drones are saving their deputies’ lives increasingly more often by understanding the situation before breaching the building or beginning a firefight.
The data collected from the drone are: the layout of the building, the number of hostiles within the structure, and any traps laid for officers.
Other useful information is entry points and exit points for the officers to flank hostiles and extract hostages.
The same goes for victims of a hostage situation. Law enforcement can discreetly breach the building with a small drone to determine the hostage count and even discreetly instruct the hostages to act in sync with the officers’ movements.
Many hostage situations and armed barricades can take days, but determining the threat level of the situation using an unmanned vehicle can speed up the process of de-escalation or, in the worst-case scenario, engaging in combat.
Sometimes the criminal will lie about the weapons they have and the number of hostages they have. Knowing this information gathered from the drone is a game-changer and a lifesaver.
Accident reconstruction via drone mapping and modeling
Drone mapping is a hot topic these days because of the many applications it can be used for. Among these applications are accident reconstruction projects.
At the scene of a crash, it’s important to take measurements to perform a damage assessment and understand how the accident will affect traffic, and conduct an investigation to assess the liability of those involved.
Before drone mapping, police would have to take pictures on the ground level to analyze and deduct what happened at the scene.
They would also have to take measurements with a tape measure to understand the distance covered in the accident.
With drone mapping, law enforcement is able to build an orthomosaic and a 3-D model of the scene of the accident in order to visualize the accident in-house via the 3-D model.
The orthomosaic allows for a top-down view of the accident and allows measurements to be extracted, such as length of skid marks, distance from car to car, and proximity to lanes or barriers or moving cars.
Understanding the accident via the 3-D model combined with the measurements extracted from the orthomosaic assists the police in conducting a conclusive investigation on who was at fault in causing the accident.
This is a much more reliable way to conclude fault versus the old ways of snapping ground-level pictures and taking tape measure measurements.
Along with all that, it’s much easier to show a model in court as well as the measurements extracted from an orthomosaic to have a visual representation of the accident for the jury.
The model and the orthomosaic also help maintain an unbiased recollection of the events and are able to be challenged if the police report does not coincide with them all.
Civilians & using drones to monitor illegal activities
Tragedy, especially within small communities, sparks the ambition to change the problem facing the community at large.
I spoke with a drone pilot who is part of a community group that works with law enforcement to report and monitor criminal activity – mainly violent criminal activity.
This man is just like any other civilian, but several years ago, a teenage girl was shot and killed in a gang-related firefight. This man decided he needed to do his part to clean up the community.
Using drones, he began to monitor and report criminal activity in his neighborhood to the police so that a tragedy like this would never happen again.
Using drones, he is able to monitor criminal activity without putting himself in danger. The danger to himself is low, but it still takes courage to take action.
The criminals could attempt to follow the drone back to the pilot, and with the new Remote ID laws requiring the location of the drone and pilot to be broadcasted, this danger increases.
Today, the police work with him as well as several other pilots to stamp out violent criminal activity in residential neighborhoods all over western North Carolina.
These civilian-led efforts are a huge benefit to police, as they are able to go to the exact location as the situation unfolds. Having a report from a bird’s eye view gives law enforcement a better understanding of the situation and the threat level.
According to this pilot, crime, and specifically violent crime, has decreased by a large margin since his efforts as a “civilian anti-crime drone pilot.”
Ethical issues of drones in law enforcement
Law enforcement benefits greatly from the applications of drones in their field. Following criminal activity and monitoring known threats can save many lives.
Police officers and sheriff deputies are still human, and while many respect the constitution and seek to protect the public, some may abuse the great power drones provide when monitoring crime.
This phenomenon of monitoring individuals that have not committed crimes yet is called “pre-crime” and is a topic of debate.
The controversy begins here. It has occurred to many non-drone pilots and drone pilots alike the power drones give law enforcement.
When a crime is not being committed, the lines of following the law are somewhat blurry when law enforcement drone pilots monitor areas of private property and persons.
Allowing law enforcement to routinely monitor areas when they do not have a warrant or when a crime is not being committed can lead to a surveillance state. This infringes on the rights that citizens of the United States enjoy.
While this is not legal advice, it is known that police must respect private citizens’ reasonable expectations of privacy. Just like when police are ground-based, they must respect and adhere to private property laws and cannot enter private property without a warrant.
They can usually approach a door to perform a check or ask questions, but if the private property owner tells them to leave, they must. They cannot open doors, continue to search the property, or do anything without a warrant.
The issue arises with FAA airspace. No individual owns airspace. That means law enforcement can essentially fly a drone around a property as low as they want and zoom in as far as they want. This breaks a citizen’s reasonable expectation of privacy.
Officers that I have spoken with love this ability but do not seem to understand the precedent it sets nor the rights it begins to infringe on. The issue is that while it may stop some crimes, when power is given, it isn’t often given up.
Monitoring traffic speed can be done and is done by traffic cameras. This records public property. Cameras mounted on government buildings monitor public property as well. These can do what law enforcement drones do without infringing on anyone’s rights.
It is important to maintain the balance between privacy, freedom, and security, and law enforcement seems to be throwing off this balance with their routine usage of drones in private areas.
The ACLU recognizes this in their article:
The report done by the ACLU finds that “The report recommends that drones should not be deployed unless there are grounds to believe that they will collect evidence on a specific crime. If a drone will intrude on reasonable privacy expectations, a warrant should be required.”
And “Routine aerial surveillance in American life would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States. Rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a “surveillance society” in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the authorities.”
Honorable Mention: Search and Rescue
Using drones in search and rescue operations has been taking place for some time now.
Not only can drones help find subjects with standard RGB cameras, but thermal drones allow law enforcement pilots to look for the heat signatures of a human, which are generally hotter or sometimes colder in the surrounding area.
This is an excellent and effective method of finding persons who have lost their way in a National Park, been kidnapped, or gotten stranded. Using automated flight capabilities, the thermal drone is able to fly in a grid pattern over a selected area.
This ensures that no region is left unchecked. When the subject of the search is found from the automated flight, the search and rescue team will know exactly where they are via the drone’s location on the GPS receiver.
Thermal drones have helped police and law enforcement find many missing persons and will definitely continue to do so in the future.
The relationship between law enforcement and drones
Drones are a tool. Just like any other tool, their effectiveness can vary. Most tools are used for one purpose.
However, as displayed in this article, drones are being used across a spectrum of uses, and some uses may be in a way that the public is not privy to.
Law enforcement officers are leveraging this tool to keep communities safe, keep officers safe, increase the accuracy of the conclusion of their investigation, and help find those who are lost.
Drones are more beneficial than many tools in their arsenal and can be outfitted to do so much more.