Wisconsin At the Forefront of Police Drone Operations Nationwide

America’s law enforcement agencies are warming to drones – and no state seems to have embraced them more enthusiastically than Wisconsin.  The Badger State ranks a close second (57) to California (58) for the number of law enforcement agencies nationwide with drone programs; both states slightly trail Texas, which has 64.  But consider the population sizes of the  three states:   California (39.2 million) Texas (27 million) are huge while Wisconsin is small (5.9 million).  That makes Wisconsin’s police drone development, statistically speaking, the highest in the nation – by a factor of 5 or more.

It’s not exactly clear why. It’s certainly not due to a higher crime rate in Wisconsin.  On the contrary, the crime rates in Texas and California in 2022 ranked them at #16 and #20, respectively, compared to #40 for Wisconsin.  And it’s not because Wisconsin is more drone friendly overall.  The Virginia-based Mercatus Center ranks Texas and California slightly ahead of Wisconsin in terms of drone industry development.  Wisconsin, has no state drone office, virtually no drone labor market, and still doesn’t allow unrestricted drone flights over its interstate highways or state and local roads.

But one thing seems clear: Wisconsin police began using drones as far back as 2017 while their counterparts in Texas and California didn’t acquire their first drones until 2019.

One of the earliest news reports of a police drone operation in Wisconsin was in Janesville, a small town in the southern part of the state.  At the time, Janesville’s PD had a single drone and just one officer trained to operate it; so did a number of surrounding police departments in Rock County.  But since then, drone programs have mushroomed across the state, in large cities and small.  Police departments in Milwaukee, Madison, La Crosse and Kenosha, for example, now own a large fleet of drones and have trained an entire team of five or more officers to fly them.  No other state can boast a police drone “presence” on this scale.

Wisconsin police drones are deployed in a variety of missions – but none is more important than capturing fleeing criminal suspects.  Nearly every news report of a drone action in Wisconsin features this role.  The Janesville news report cited above concerned a man who fled police out the back door of his home and tried to hide in a dumpster then fled to a clump of trees.  It was dark but the Janesville police, armed with a drone equipped with thermal imaging technology, identified the man’s body and moved in to apprehend him.

The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s office, in early 2021, expanded its initial drone team to include a new fleet of DJI Mavic drones equipped with the most advanced FLIR heat-sensing technol0gy strong enough to detect persons hiding in dense tree cover and behind thick walls and metal doors.  The Sheriff office’s new command center integrates drone surveillance footage into a network of stationary cameras allowing for rapid identification and pursuit of criminal suspects.  In addition, drones are now used routinely to map crime and accident scenes, reducing the need for more costly and cumbersome field investigations and allowing backed up traffic to resume expeditiously.

This past year was something of a banner year for police drones in Wisconsin.  On more than one occasion, police departments across the state – from Milwaukee and Madison to La Crosse and Kenosha – chased and caught fleeing criminal suspects, often relying on their drones’ thermal imaging technology to identify them.  Just last week, a man wanted for second-degree homicide in Milwaukee fled a crashed vehicle on Interstate 9o.  The man first tried to hide in a dumpster and then fled to a clump of nearby trees  Madison police called in a drone, spotted the man, then relayed his coordinates  via GPS to the Wisconsin state police who swooped in to make the arrest.

Thanks to expanded drone overflights and improved local-state police coordination on Wisconsin highways, many more such arrests will likely be made in 2023.

Wisconsin is also the first state in the nation to lift its long-standing restrictions on police drone flights above correctional facilities.  Wisconsin prison officials have been pushing for expanded authority to monitor incoming drones – which often deliver drug contraband, cell phones and even weapons to prisoners – and if necessary, to intercept them before they reach their targets.  However, federal guidelines still prohibit the use of anti-drone technology to conduct signal jamming or other techniques that might disable a flying aircraft.  Wisconsin is continuing to explore more limited options to deter prison overflights by hostile actors.

State Sen. Dan Feyen, who sponsored the bill authorizing police prison overflights, argued that the new drones can also play a broader role monitoring prisoner movements and providing perimeter security.   Some contraband deliveries to prisoners are made by persons approaching the prisons on foot.  Prison drones can also conduct routine inspections and maintenance activities that are currently performed by contract field crews – but at greatly reduced cost to state taxpayers, Feyen argues.

Lifting the ban on prison overflights is only the latest sign that Wisconsin is fast becoming one of the nation’s trend-setters when it comes to expanding drone use by local law enforcement.   As the state’s crime rate continues to decline, expect more public safety organizations – including local fire departments – to sign on in 2023.

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