Brookhaven, Georgia’s Police Department Joins the Nation’s “Drone as First Responder” Program

The Brookhaven, Georgia police department (BPD) recently became the 15th law enforcement agency nationwide to join the Drone as First Responder or DFR program.  The innovative program, first announced two months ago, will allow the department to dispatch UAVs to potential crime scenes in response to 911 calls.  The drones hover overhead, allowing arriving BPD field officers to gain vital situational intelligence to adapt their force posture and armed tactics accordingly.  DFR has been shown to close 911 calls faster, reducing police operational costs, while minimizing casualties to officers and suspects alike.  The BPD says it’s already seeing the same great results.

“[DFR] allows us to escalate or de-escalate our response depending on what we see on the drone camera,” a BPD incident commander told CBS News/Atlanta last week.

Police lieutenant Abrem Ayanna, who pushed the BPD to adopt the program nearly two years ago, says it’s a “force multiplier” for the department, allowing it to decide how many officers to send to a crime scene, based on the actual tactical requirements.  The hovering drone also provides officers on the scene with the “back up” typically assigned to other field officers, who can now be directed to other police calls.

And there are additional cost and operational advantages, Ayanna says.  The BPD need not invest in a manned police helicopter, which is beyond the scope of its small police budget, and which, unlike a drone, can’t operate at night.  Typically, the BPD needs 4.5 minutes to respond to a 911 call; with a drone, the average response time is just 90 seconds.

The BPD insists that its two drones don’t – and won’t – engage in routine aerial patrolling or surveillance.  “A lot of big-city agencies [with drones] have to deal with issues around privacy and transparency. We don’t use drones as a crime control tactic and that removes any concerns about profiling or about policing different demographics and communities differently,” Ayanna says.

“We’re not looking down in people’s backyards.  We’re focused on the mission.  It’s a completely reactionary tool, to incidents already occurring on the ground,” he adds.

BPD police chief Brandon Gurley says the department observes strict protocols regarding use of its DFR drones, in accordance with FAA regulations, as well as the drone guidelines issued by numerous police and privacy agencies.

“We feel we’re on the cutting edge of a police innovation trend here in Brookhaven.  We want to make sure we do it the right way,” he says.

DFR wasn’t the BPD’s first drone 911 program.  Ayana, who joined the force in 2015, says he first pushed for a “drone in the trunk” model that allowed cruising officers to approach a crime scene with its own eyes and ears.  That made police responses safer, but not necessarily faster, he says.

It was the experience of the Chula Vista California police department, which first pioneered the DFR program back in 2019, that led him to propose a similar program to the BPD chief, who agreed to approach the local city council for funding and approval.  It’s taken well over a year to secure the go-ahead.

Ayana says the BPD’s program relies on three full-time personnel that operate drones from two strategically placed launch locations – nearby high-rises. One officer remotely controls the camera from a control center while two others serve as rooftop pilots in command of each aircraft.

The program also relies on CAPE technology that geo-fences its flights to keep them within the FAA-approved altitude zones and away from nearby airports and other buildings where drone overflights are restricted.

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