Police departments find uses for drones
STAMFORD — Sgt. Andrew Gallagher is always trying to find a better view.
For years, the commander of the Stamford Police Department’s Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Squad, has used anything he could find — usually climbing on top of firetrucks — to get an aerial glimpse of the scene.
Now he can keep his feet on the ground.
Gallagher is one of the department’s four Federal Aviation Administration-certified drone pilots.
The devices have become the latest law enforcement tool for reconstructing accident scenes and tracking suspects.
“The biggest thing is that everyone used to looking at a map is used to an overhead view,” said Gallagher, whose unit has documented about 10 accident scenes with a drone in the past two years. “I have stood on more fire trucks than most firemen looking for an overhead shot. We are always looking for something to stand on.”
Last year, the department established a Drone Unit, commanded by Officer Michael Stempien.
Capt. Richard Conklin said the department’s Special Response Team (SWAT) has used drones in some of the most high-charged situations.
“You can put up a drone and get some different aerial shots that will provide intelligence about where the person may be, the lay of the land and things like that,” he said.
“It gives a bird’s eye view of crowds and conditions, where you don’t have to put people in peril and what you are seeing is in real time with no delay.”
In Westport, the town’s police department recently used a drone to help search for five teenagers accused of driving a stolen SUV into a cop car after robbing vehicles in the Saugatuck neighborhood.
“I (flew) over the marshland to see if anyone was there,” said Westport Police Capt. Ryan Paulsson, a certified drone pilot. “The vegetation is high enough that you can’t really see in.”
FAA rules treat Paulsson like any other commercial drone operator, and prohibit flights before dawn. So he waited for sunrise to launch the drone, which has four rotors, is the size of a pizza delivery box and half the weight of a gallon of water.
Police found the suspects with traditional policing tools: sniffing dogs, a patrol boat and thermal-imaging devices. But drones are becoming an increasingly important asset for law enforcement.
“In the crawl-walk-run stage, we’re crawling, and moving to walking,” Paulsson said. “It’s a new technology to law enforcement ... we don’t want to move too too fast with it.”
The drone industry and the rules that govern it are also moving slowly.
The state Legislature considered a bill last year backed by Berlin police that would have allowed cops to fly drones equipped with lethal weapons. The proposal snagged national headlines — no other state allows lethal drones — and died in committee.
“This was originally a good bill to protect communities from unwarranted police drone surveillance and prevent police from weaponizing drones,” David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said in a May 1 statement. “The ACLU (supports) protecting people from unwarranted drone surveillance, but opposes the amendment to allow police to equip drones with lethal and ‘less-lethal’ weapons.”
Like most departments, Paulsson said Westport police don’t need those abilities.
“I don’t plan on putting any attachments at this point,” Paulsson said. “This is purely for documenting scenes, search-and-rescue and public safety.”
Some Connecticut companies are positioning for a drone boom.
“We envision a future where every squad car in America has a drone integrated into its computer system,” said Paul Ouellette, a spokesman for West Haven-based distributor Drone USA. “At present, the drone industry is in infancy. (Police) departments are just learning how drones can make their work simpler and safer.”
This summer, the company flew “quadcopter” and airplane-type drones in demonstrations to police departments in Trumbull and on Jennings Beach in Fairfield.
Drone USA hopes to get a foothold in the Connecticut and New Jersey markets by selling and servicing drones like the DJI Phantom 4 that Paulsson flies. Stamford police use a slightly older model. They retail for between $800 and $1,400.
“The departments we encounter seem to be at different stages of interest,” Ouellette said. “For example, some departments are experimenting with DJI products; others tend to favor more sophisticated U.S. manufactured products.”
Like any novel technology, the drone industry faces a novel set of problems.
In August, the U.S. military stopped using DJI drones, which are made in China, due to concern their data might not be secure. Documents posted online alleged data was shared with the Chinese government, and immigration officials started an investigation.
DJI said in a statement that it doesn’t review flight logs, photos or video “unless customers actively upload and share them with us,” the Associated Press reported last month.
Flying and the Fourth Amendment
Privacy and other civil rights concerns persist.
Without additional legislation, there’s no rule prohibiting police from flying their drone cameras over people’s houses, according to a 2014 study by the Connecticut General Assembly’s Legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee.
U.S. courts have never defined exactly how far above the ground private property ends and the so-called “public highway” of the navigable skies begins. The Supreme Court has yet to take up a drone case.
“There is a place for drones in the police department, but they have to be used in accordance with the Fourth Amendment,” which protects against unreasonable search and seizure, McGuire said.
Westport police have used a drone in the past year mainly at scenes of fatal or serious accidents, Paulsson said. While a fire truck ladder can get an areal shot of a car crash, a drone is safer and quicker. When a worker fell off shaky scaffolding, a drone allowed police to assess the top of the structure without risking a fall.
But Paulsson said he can imagine eventually expanding the drone’s capabilities, perhaps adding thermal imaging and flying at night — abilities that could have simplified the search for the five teen suspects in Saugatuck.
Much of that could happen without new legislation. All Paulsson has to do to fly at night, over people, or higher than the standard limit of 400 feet, is to craft a reasonable safety plan and submit it to the FAA for a geographically specific exemption.