Law enforcement agencies nationwide are turning to drones to bolster their crime-fighting capabilities. Normally, a drone is stationed on top of the roof of police headquarters, ready to respond at a moment’s notice. When a 911 call comes in, the drone flies to the scene of an emergency, hovers overhead, and provides arriving officers with the situational intelligence they need to size up the situation and adapt their tactics and use of force accordingly.
Drone first responder programs are enormously successful, according to studies. Not only do they minimize the time needed to close 911 calls, lowering police operational costs, they also reduce the incidence of armed encounters that injure officers and suspects alike. It’s a win-win for all concerned.
Last year, the Sacramento Police Department (SPD) decided to extend the police drone concept to another level. It took the drones off the roof and put them inside patrol cars, incorporating them into day-to-day police work. But these are no standard police UAVs. They’re “micro-drones” about the size of a fist, and small enough to fit inside a pants pocket.
The idea is, once officers exit their vehicles at a potential crime scene, they immediately deploy the drone to conduct an aerial survey. But the drone does more than merely capture video of the scene from the outside, it’s small enough to maneuver into buildings where a crime may be unfolding to give officers an inside and often undetected view of what’s transpiring. Equipped with a small two-way PA system, the drone can also communicate with perpetrators and their victims to try to defuse a potentially explosive situation.
Some Sacramento residents are concerned about the likely expense of outfitting the entire police force with mirco-drones as well as their impact on citizen privacy. The SPD has responded with a publicity campaign to reassure the community that warrant-based crime fighting, not routine surveillance, is their only goal.
“We’re not Big Brother. It says so right in our general orders,” notes John Azevedo, a 10-year veteran of the force and the SPD’s self-proclaimed drone “nerd.”
“If we have a legal right to be at a potential crime scene, either inside or outside, and our officers are allowed to go there, that’s when the drone comes into play,” he says.
Azevedo and other SPD officers have given interviews to the local media while also demonstrating the use of their micro-drones in the field to reassure anxious citizens that only good will come from their use.
In one widely circulated video, Azevedo recounts an encounter with an armed man holed up in his house who refused to surrender. When the man stopped communicating, the incident commander sent in a micro-drone which filmed the man passed out on his bed. The drone landed on his chest and was able to monitor the man’s labored breathing.
It turned out that the suspect had suffered a medical emergency. Officers stormed the house and rushed him to the hospital, where doctors were able to revive him.
“We were able to go in, take him into custody and give him the medical treatment he needed, ” Azevedo says, citing the case as just one of a half dozen of the SPD’s successes to date.
The department’s small micro-drones, unlike the larger UAVs equipped with high-powered zoom and thermal imaging cameras deployed by other police departments nationwide, are relatively inexpensive, costing no more than $90 each.
At that rate, hundreds of micro-drones could be bought for the same price as a single large UAV. So far, the department has purchased just a few dozen, without the need for a special police budget request.
“Even though they’re not very expensive, I’d pay a lot more to save someone’s life,” Zahn insists.
Azevedo says the improved response time and maneuverability of micro-drones makes them superior to the larger and more cumbersome drones that most police departments purchase.
“We can get into the small tight spaces where other drones can’t go. This is really a game-changer,” he says.
The department plans to approach the city for approval for a large-scale purchase. Given their success so far, Azevedo expects few obstacles to equipping more of the force.
“To my knowledge we are the first in the area, the first in the region and the first in the nation to invest in this micro-technology,” he says. “The day is coming when an officer pops out of his vehicle, pushes a button and the drone comes with him. We are not far away from that.”