Local Wyoming Sheriff’s Office Finally Acquires Its Own Drone Fleet

Most of the nation’s police forces are eager to acquire drones to bolster their crime-fighting capabilities.  Those that cannot convince their local government to approve a special budget request to purchase a UAV sometimes turn to private foundations for support.

But one local law enforcement department has found another source of support –  the proceeds collected from drug busts.

The Sheriff’s Office in Campbell County, Wyoming – population 47,028 – tried for years to convince the local government to approve its annual drone budget request – and was turned down every time.  The request was small but the government, citing budget pressures, refused to comply.

Then last month, the search for a missing 55-year old adult, Tami Sturgeon,  dramatized the County’s outstanding need.  With no drones of their own, outside agencies with helicopters were called in to expedite the search.  And some amateur drone hobbyists employed by the Sheriff’s Office also lent their support.

But the effort failed.  Sturgeon’s lifeless body was found just two miles from where she’d been reported missing, near a ravine.  Despite a massive air and ground search, it took the participating agencies a full 5 days to find her.

During that time, Sturgeon was exposed to the elements – including freezing rain and snow – without adequate clothing, food or shelter.  The Country coroner found that she’d died from the effects of hypothermia.

Stung by the tragedy, the Sheriff’s Office was determined to find the resources to support a drone fleet of its own.

And the Office soon found one.

Under Wyoming civil law, drug-related assets, including money used to buy illegal drugs, can be forfeited if it was legally seized during a police raid.  The law also requires that all drug monies subject to forfeiture must be reallocated to law enforcement.

The Campbell County Sheriff’s Office didn’t have to press its case too hard.  A drone search in Sublette County just two weeks earlier had successfully found and rescued a missing special needs woman within hours of her disappearance.

But in that case, the search drones had been equipped with high-powered zoom and thermal imaging cameras that can identify missing persons in the dark and in thick foliage based on their heat signature alone.

The drone team zoomed in on the woman who was detected wandering alone amid snow-covered trees in the pitch black of night.  Though she was three miles from her last reported location, it took the search and rescue team just two hours to find her and to relay her GPS coordinates to awaiting first responders who sped to the scene knowing the woman’s precise location.  Within minutes she was safely recovered and returned home.

The Campbell County Sheriff’s Office says it’s hopeful that its new drone fleet can help avert future tragedies.  In addition to search and rescue, the Office plans to train its officers to utilize the drones for criminal and accident scene analysis and other tactical missions.

Other Wyoming counties like Sublette have long deployed drones for these and other purposes.  Sublette has even acquired specially equipped indoor drones to support SWAT teams during hostage scenarios.

But Wyoming lacks a high-level executive task force to promote drone activity by the state’s public sector agencies.  The existence of such a task force has been shown to be a critical factor in getting drones adopted statewide, especially by law enforcement and transportation agencies.

For now, Campbell County will have to fend for itself.  But it’s a promising start that gives County residents the assurance that Tami Sturgeon – a beloved wife and mother who was buried last week – may not have died in vain.

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