Police agencies look into using drones

Madison College develops training program on unmanned aerial vehicles
Police agencies look into using drones

Small pieces of plastic with a small motor and camera, weighing less than five pounds, seem poised to become a valuable and affordable tool for law enforcement.

Small drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are being looked at closely by several jurisdictions in Wisconsin.

“There have been multiple agencies who have expressed interest in it. I think they are all kind of looking at each other thinking, ‘Who’s going to be the first one to dive into it?'” said Brian Landers, chair of the Criminal Justice Department at Madison College.

In preparation for the use of drones in Wisconsin, Madison College has developed a training program offered to law enforcement agencies. The program will train police and firefighters on how to fly the unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as on the legal and ethical limits.

The primary uses of the unmanned aerial vehicles are for assisting in search and rescue operations, tactical situations, crime and accident scene photography and fire scene assessment.

“By having the ability to get eyes on something, either a building or an incident from a distance, from a safe distance that can mean life and death for the police officer or the people that are involved,” Landers said. “It brings a lot. It brings safety number one and not only to law enforcement officers but also to the people they serve.”

While the unmanned aerial vehicles have the potential to save lives they could also save taxpayers a great deal of money. An unmanned aerial vehicle will cost a police or fire department approximately $1,300.

“If you go to a large metropolitan agency an unmanned aerial vehicle can easily replace a multi-million dollar helicopter,” Landers said.

Law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin have the ability to use unmanned aerial vehicles under Senate Bill 196, which was passed last year. The legislation requires law enforcement agencies to obtain a search warrant prior to using the device for collection of evidence. The bill does provide exceptions to allow use of an unmanned aerial vehicle for active search-and-rescue operations to locate an escaped prisoner or in an emergency to prevent imminent danger to an individual or imminent destruction of evidence.

“Police officers are not going to be trained to fly over neighborhoods and just randomly look for things,” Landers said.

While the law requires law enforcement agencies to obtain a search warrant to look for evidence, critics are concerned the law is written broadly enough to cause problems.

“Unfortunately, here in Wisconsin the law that was passed by the legislature this past session is very weak in our minds,” said Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “We need to have some guidelines that will protect American values like privacy and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.”

Ahmuty believes that because of the way the law is written it will eventually be challenged in court.

“I’m sure it will be. You can bet your bottom dollar,” Ahmuty said.

Concerns about the proper use of the unmanned aerial vehicles have weighed heavily in the policies Madison College has developed for training.

“There’s a concern about the public perception and that’s a concern by Madison College as well, and that is why we feel the need to provide the safe and ethical training on the devices and where it cannot be used,” Landers said.