More Local Police Departments Turn to Drones to Enhance Their Enforcement Operations

Two more local police departments have joined the growing list of law enforcement agencies that have turned to drones to enhance their criminal pursuit and search-and rescue operations.

In Blaine, Minnesota, police have turned to private businesses and foundations to finance the purchase of a single drone equipped with advanced video and thermal imaging features. at a cost of $16,250.  The funding was originally intended for the department’s now-disbanded K9 unit, according to Officer Keith Olson, who supervises the new drone unit.

The department’s new drone – the specific make and model is unknown – is capable of flying in all-weather conditions, including moderate winds, and is equipped with a loudspeaker for one-way communication with suspects or individuals in distress.

Olson noted that the drone is cheaper and more effective than a helicopter, which requires a trained pilot and expensive fuel and maintenance.  A helicopter is noisy and leaves a large carbon footprint compared to a lightweight, relatively quiet battery-powered drone.

“For citizens involved in search and rescue events, the objective is to locate them sooner and remove them from danger more efficiently,” Olson told the Northern Light newspaper last week.  “Searching on foot, especially in challenging terrains like mountainsides or open waters, is inherently difficult. With the drone’s assistance, we enhance our search capabilities to support ground teams effectively.”

In just the first few months of its deployment, the department’s drone has already proven instrumental in capturing several fleeing suspects and in identifying trespassers at a town railroad station, Olson noted.  Most recently, the BPD deployed the drone to search for a roaming black bear and her two cubs – which turned out to be two harmless deer.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office in Evangeline Parish in Louisiana has just acquired its own specialized police drone – a modified DJI Mavic 3T – to help with criminal pursuit and search-and-rescue operations.  Sheriff Charles Guillory says the drone’s thermal imaging camera is especially critical for identifying fleeing and missing persons, who can be detected in the dark based on the heat signature alone.

“We have a lot of ATV and side-by-side theft,” Guillory told a local TV station. “If we have a tip that somebody is hiding in a wooded area or in a field, a drone would help with that.”

Gullory has assigned three of his officers to the department’s new drone unit – a beat patrol officer, an investigations detective, and a narcotics detective.  All three will begin training on how to operate the drone over the next few weeks.

Both the Blaine and Evangeline PDs are careful to point out that their drones will not engage in routine patrolling, in part to avoid citizen complaints regarding profiling or privacy abuses.

Two other small cities and counties – Shelby County, TN and Schenectady, NY – are preparing to introduce drones into their police forces, pending approval from local residents.

All told, about 1,600 local police departments – about 8% of the nation’s total – now deploy drones for a variety of enforcement purposes – from criminal pursuit and search-and-rescue operations to crime and accident scene analysis, according to data gathered by the Washington, DC-based Brookings Institution and the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York.

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