Drones and Law Enforcement: Loudoun Ramps Up Technology

Drones and Law Enforcement: Loudoun Ramps Up Technology

Unmanned flight technology is advancing faster than ever and continues to have a profound impact on our lives.

From Nikola Tesla wowing audiences with an unmanned boat turning by radio frequencies switching motors on and off, in the late 1800’s, to remotely controlled commercial, military and private planes, to advancements in military unmanned aircraft such as the MQ-1 Predator in the 90’s, there is little doubt where progression of this unmanned platform was headed.

Now, anyone can own a home or commercial use unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) … commonly known as a drone.

Advances in law enforcement are no different.

Beginning in 2005, a private search and rescue firm in Texas used a fixed-wing drone in collaboration with the Irwin County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia to assist in the search of a local teacher who disappeared.  That incident is widely known as ground zero for drone use in law enforcement.

Today, there are over 300 jurisdictions throughout the U.S. utilizing drones for search and rescue, explosive ordnance detection, hazardous materials incidents, disaster response, arson fires, hostage rescue, as well as armed and barricade occurrences.

Drones are a versatile quickly deployed tool to provide aerial views of otherwise inaccessible places or vital information during search, rescue, and tactical operations.

Drones were just used in the aftermath of Hurricane … by the North Texas Unmanned Arial System (UAS) Response Team.  The drones were used for evaluating accessibility to carrying rope leader lines to stranded victims—all of which not only saved lives but reduced risk and harm to first responders.

The North Texas UAS Response Team is one of a growing number of jurisdictions placing a great deal of training into a forward-looking approach regarding unmanned technology.

The Team runs live simulations on active shooter scenarios with the drone running point with its pilot as the team’s eyes and ears.

“Keep the officers that are coming in safe, make sure I can get eyes on the bad guy … make sure they’re not walking into something that’s going to get them killed,” said Detective Barry Moore of Mansfield (Texas) Police Department.

Detective Moore is one of the drone pilots from the North Texas UAS Response Team which found an escaped convict in 2015 several hours before a search helicopter arrived.

Drones are also being used in search and rescue missions. Kayakers, hikers, Alzheimer and autism victims, missing elderly and kids all being found by thermal imaging, spotlights, and the vast overhead view.

Fire and rescue teams nationwide are adapting practices to use thermal imaging to search for potential stranded victims as well as monitor the whereabouts of the first responders.

The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) just purchased a new drone which, initially, will be used to search for lost individuals.

The LCSO drone is the first UAV in Virginia and only the sixth in the U.S. to be equipped with Project Lifesaver tracking capabilities.

Project Lifesaver is the premier search and rescue program operated internationally by public safety agencies, and is strategically designed for “at risk” individuals who are prone to the life-threatening behavior of wandering.  To date, Project Lifesaver has rescued over 3,300 individuals.

“Its been in existence since 2010, and saved 23 people, usually within a half an hour or less, but what’s good about this, it will give us the ability to find people that are lost, even faster,” said Sheriff Mike Chapman of the program’s success in Loudoun.

Chapman said the alternative solution is to employ a helicopter which, in comparison, the drone is a fraction of the cost.

“I think, probably on the low side, anywhere between a million or over to purchase a helicopter and close to $1000 an hour to fly it,” said Chapman.

Chapman foresees the use of drones increasing outside of Project Lifesaver and normal search and rescue as laws change and the technology is needed.  Currently, without a search warrant, Virginia law limits use of drones by government agencies to search and rescue.

Nationwide, drone use by law enforcement is saving lives but not without controversy.

The use of drones is limited in police investigations due to careful consideration of the Fourth Amendment, which prevents unlawful searches, including aerial surveillance by a government entity.

The balance for those agreeing this technology is worthwhile yet striving to retain civil protections seems to be permitting drone surveillance in cases where police obtain an individualized warrant, while maintaining privacy rights consistent with the original understanding of the Fourth Amendment.

With aerial coverage, height appears to be one trigger for discussion in the higher courts.

In the 1989 case, Florida v. Riley, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that since airplanes and helicopters often fly over private property, at 400 feet, citizens do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy that their activities will not be observed from the air.  In Riley, the police were permitted use of evidence obtained without a search warrant from helicopter observation of a greenhouse in which they suspected marijuana was being grown. Prior to Riley, the height discussed was 1000 feet.

However, recently, the New Mexico Supreme Court (in State v. Davis) held that an overflight by a helicopter at 50 feet violated the Fourth Amendment.

Drone use has and will continue to affect case law, lawmaker decisions and internal policies to address familiar issues associated with searches, such as warrant requirements, by including new and evolving concerns relating to surveillance technologies, biometric software, and potentially, weaponization.

Brian Reynolds