Technology has changed the way police officers can carry out their civic duties. One of the most valuable tools police have at their disposal comes from multiple forms of recording devices. Security cameras help officers investigate possible crime scenes. Images from satellite cameras help build comprehensive maps that officers use for navigation. Cameras on vehicles help when monitoring traffic situations. Body cameras provide accountability and help break down barriers between officers and the public. These types of cameras have become standard issue equipment for nearly all police departments in the United States.
Over the last decade, a new recording device has been enabling police officers and other emergency officers to have an added edge to their artillery. The Chula Vista Police Department in California became the first official police force to begin using drones in 2015. The Federal Aviation Authority appointed Chula Vista as a law enforcement drone pilot program. Since then, police departments across the country have begun implementing their own drone programs. The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) is one of the latest law enforcement agencies to adopt a drone program.
Under the leadership of Sheriff Earnell R. Lucas, since November 6, 2018, the MCSO has more than 300 full time employees. The department serves Wisconsin’s most populous county with more than 945,000 citizens. One of the MCSO’s beliefs is that they are in the service business and that they have to earn the trust of their customers, the communities they protect. It was in that vein that the MCSO decided to have an open public forum to introduce the department’s newest specialty unit. The department’s specialty units are an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), Canine Patrol (K-9), Bicycle Patrol, Boat Patrol, and Honor Guard. On Tuesday, March 24, 2021, the MCSO presented its Aerial Drone unit headed by Sgt. Andrew Bilda.
The presentation was held in a gymnasium and opened with a product video highlighting the two new drones the department purchased. Contrary to claims made about the security of Chinese drone manufacturer DJI, the MCSO bought a Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual and a Mavic 2 Enterprise Zoom. Both drones are lightweight (under 2 lbs), compact, and foldable making them easy to transport to any situation. With a speed of about 44 mph, the drones have an average flight time of 30 minutes. Sense and avoid sensors ensure safe flight while each drone is password protected to eliminate any security concerns. The Dual model has a FLIR (Forward-Looking InfraRed) camera that allows officers to search for heat signatures. The Zoom model’s camera can dynamically, digitally zoom 2-3x.
The presentation also provided the public with a flight demonstration of the drones. As the demonstration was held inside a building, the drones could not reach their maximum height, but Sgt. Bilda said that they would normally operate the drone at around 400ft. Sgt. Bilda was able to demonstrate the sense and avoidance features, ease of flight, and the FLIR technology. The FLIR camera was able to show the heat signature of a person standing behind a closed steel door. Sgt. Bilda said this would be of particular use when searching through the county’s many forested areas. There are “a lot of areas with a lot of trees,” he said, “there are times where maybe a subject gets lost or fell and got hurt and now the drone can go up. And FLIR technology can find the person so that now, officers know how to get to that person safely and quickly.” Sgt. Bilda also pointed out that the drones are not capable of recording audio information, nor can they connect to cell phones to gather information. The drones do have speakers on them that officers can use to relay messages to people.
The WCSO has been using the drones for some time now, but they felt it was important to share with the public just how the drones benefit police officers and citizens. The drones will help officers get situational awareness to create plans of action. The drones will also be used in search and rescue missions and to help in traffic situations like the one that involved a 53 car pileup in Fowlerville, Michigan. Officers reporting to the accident deployed a drone to assist. “They were able to utilize the drone to get an overall perspective of the crash, and it aided in forming the best possible emergency response,” he said. “In this particular case, it involved 20 different agencies.” But what Sgt. Bilda wanted to make very clear to the WCSO community was that these drones would never be used to spy on anyone or take advantage of the Fourth Amendment Rights. Rather, these drones are just the next step in providing law enforcement with the technology they need to protect and serve people.