When It Comes to Drones and Law Enforcement, Small Town Agencies Often Lead the Way

The town of Hemet in Riverside County in southern California just joined the list of small town law enforcement agencies embracing drones to support police work.  The city announced last week that it will purchase at least one specially equipped drone to enhance its accident and crime scene analysis and to facilitate rapid identification and rescue of lost and missing persons.

Hemet’s hardly alone. Across the nation, some 1,600 local police departments and in some cases fire departments are looking to drones for support at a time when budget cutbacks are forcing them to reduce their head count, sometimes drastically.

California, with some 10% of the nation’s total, has by far the most police and fire departments currently deploying drones.  While major cities like Los Angeles, San Diego and most recently, San Francisco have begun purchasing drones in large numbers –sometimes establishing entire drone fleets to conduct a wide range of missions – it is most often smaller cities and towns that have acted first, paving the way   Their pilot operations, often conducted with a single inexpensive drone, can allow larger metropolises to “go to school” on drones, sizing up their pros and cons, before investing heavily in the new technology.

Police agencies in major metropolises tend to face pressures from highly organized unions and citizens groups that may be skeptical of drone benefits – or in some cases, outright hostile to their use.  Concerns over possible invasions of privacy and police monitoring of civic protest tend to become magnified in large cities while smaller towns, typically located in more conservative rural areas, are generally more supportive of law enforcement.  Their chief concern, given their limited budgets, tends to be how much a drone – even a single one –  will cost.  Many of these smaller towns have managed to find creative ways to finance their first drone purchase, often relying heavily on citizen donations or grants from private foundations.

The benefits of drones are undeniable. With proper programming, drones can respond automatically to 911 calls and speed to crime and accident scenes well before officers on the beat arrive.  With their high-powered aerial survey capability, they can provide “situational awareness,” allowing departments to deploy their resources more cheaply and efficiently.  And with drones circling overhead, fewer officers are exposed to potential injury during encounters with criminal suspects.

Hemet’s police department has partnered with Flying Lion, a drone provider familiar to California law enforcement agencies in Chula Vista, Beverly Hills, Redondo Beach and elsewhere.  The company’s drones are set up to stream live evidence-grade video to police and first-responder units equipped with CAPE, its proprietary software program.  In addition, the company has recently partnered with Iris Automation to develop “sense-and-avoid” technology that will allow its police agency clients to conduct their operations faster than ever, and without the need for remote piloting, once approval from the Federal Aviation Administration is received.

Hemet’s police department plans to contract Flying Lion for a 30-day trial, and assuming the results are satisfactory, will present its plan to the Hemet city council for approval.  Under California law, all localities in the state must first provide a period of public comment before authorizing a new drone purchase.

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