Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have an important role to play as auxiliary support for police and law enforcement operations. One of their most important law enforcement roles is surveilling and tracking criminal suspects, especially during high speed chases in tunnels, alleyways or remote mountainous terrain beyond ready access to road vehicles and manned helicopters. Drone thermal imaging technology can also be deployed at night to locate suspects that might be hiding indoors or in thick covered forests. But as one police department learned unexpectedly, drones might also serve as a go-between with criminal suspects in hostage scenarios or in other tense stand-offs that might otherwise spiral out of control.
The incident in question occurred back in 2017 in Peru, Illinois when a highly-trained ex-soldier barricaded himself inside a suburban home after firing at police officers. The suspect bragged of his explosives experience and claimed he had placed IEDs around the house to deter police action. In response, well over 150 public safety personnel were sent to the scene and proceeded to surround the house, expecting the worst. The one bright spot was that the military veteran, while emotionally distraught, also said he was willing to negotiate.
Contact with the barricaded ex-soldier was made but after a few minutes the suspect announced that his cell phone battery was dying. Public safety then sought to have a new phone delivered with a robotic cart, which promptly failed due to a technical malfunction. The suspect also refused to open the door to receive a new phone, for fear of exposing himself to fire. The incident commander – who wasn’t a member of the local Police Department but actually Ed Rogers, the Fire Chief – was aware that the Fire Department in the adjacent town of Lynwood had a fledgling drone program. Rogers promptly contacted Keenan Newton, the Lynwood drone program’s coordinator, who said he would be glad to assist.
As nightfall approached, Rogers and Newton had a contingency plan in mind. Utilize the drone’s thermal imaging device to monitor the suspect inside the house and to track him in the dark in case he decided to make a run for it. But Newton had a better short term plan: Attach a cell phone to a rope dangling from the drone and deliver it to the suspect through a bathroom window. It was a simple but ingenious idea. Newton’s tech team flew the drone past the window and hovered in such a way that the rope swung through it. The suspect, still sheltered from sight, grabbed the phone, and negotiations resumed. It took several more hours but the stand-off was resolved peacefully.
In fact, it was an earlier incident in Lynnwood that had first convinced the Fire Chief there – who was dismissive of drones – to establish its drone program. In that incident, a car had driven into a creek, and the driver and passenger couldn’t be found. Divers managed to find one of the victims but gave up when darkness loomed. Newton, then just a private drone enthusiast, convinced the Fire Chief to let him use his own Phantom 3 Pro drone to create a map of the incident to determine where to begin looking for the second victim. When recovery efforts resumed in the morning, the second victim was found within 30 minutes.
The Peru and Lynwood cases are just a small example of how drones can be useful not just strategically, but also tactically – and when least suspected. Awareness of drone advantages may arise spontaneously, in the moment, as other more tried and true means fail. Drones aren’t necessarily substitutes for traditional vehicles and tactics but they can fill the void when needed. In unpredictable police and fire scenarios, when time is of the essence they’re another arrow in the quiver.