Fighting Crime from the Sky: Drones and UAVs for Law Enforcement

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are being used by more police departments. Photo courtesy Wikipedia
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are being used by more police departments. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Across the nation, drones are taking off.  The devices – also called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs – are popular with hobbyists for piloting and capturing aerial footage, and have been positioned by corporation giants such as Amazon as a method for delivering goods to consumers. While drones have also been used for illicit activity such as smuggling drugs past border patrols or airlifting packages to inmates over prison fences, the devices also have imminent potential as a tool for law enforcement operations.

Drones can be an eye in the sky for search-and-rescue, providing an advantageous viewpoint while protecting the search team from hazardous conditions. The aircraft can also quietly and efficiently search for individuals at large – such as escaped inmates – and provide intel to officers necessary for search warrants. For SWAT team operations, piloted drones can enter dangerous situations ahead of officers to gather visual intelligence, or deploy non-lethal munitions to incapacitate violent criminals.

Law enforcement agencies nationwide are already using drones in limited capacities. In February of 2015, the Michigan State Police became the first agency certified to use drones anywhere within state boundaries. Typically, law enforcement use of drones must be approved through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which awards a Certificate of Authorization for a designated area only. The state police agency has already purchased one drone for $158,000 and is training to deploy the device to scout for missing individuals, as well as to take pictures of traffic accidents, fires and disasters for use in investigations.

Other law enforcement agencies are working to prepare policies for use of UAVs and testing newly-purchased equipment. The Jackson, MS Police Department recently displayed the devices for a demonstration in April, but is still considering the implications of purchasing and putting the UAVs to use, according to the Police Chief. Another early adopter in October of 2014 – the Grand Forks Sheriff’s Department (ND)– was the first law enforcement agency given permission to fly the devices at night. The fleet of four aircraft has been used in 11 missions so far, primarily to provide a new perspective on traffic accidents and in one instance, to hunt fugitives thought to be hiding in corn fields. Internationally, UAVs have been used in policing in India, Sweden, and other countries. The UK’s Sussex Police has been awarded an amount roughly equivalent to $380,000 to try out the devices, heralding the technology as a safe, effective intelligence-gathering tool in situations where patrols are dangerous for the officers.

Police use of drones has gathered controversy that sometimes keeps the devices grounded, however. Civil rights groups have opposed the use of the aircraft by law enforcement without proper guidelines, citing concerns over abuse of mass surveillance of citizens. As demand for the devices for crime-fighting grows, police agencies will need to develop protocols for use that address these concerns.