There has been a great deal of trepidation on the part of the public about police using unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance, which could possibly violate citizens’ highly valued privacy rights.
The reality is that police departments would probably use them for more routine, less talked about tasks, said Donald Shinnamon, a business development executive at UAV-maker Institu Inc., former police chief, and one-time chair of the aviation committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
“Mobile surveillance is not going to be an early use of unmanned aircraft by law enforcement,” he said at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Washington, D.C.
There are more everyday incidents like car crashes where they will come in handy, he said.
A small unmanned aerial vehicle with a 3D mapping payload that can be quickly launched over a car pile-up would be “invaluable” to police for traffic crash scene photography and reconstruction. It can gather all the necessary data in a short amount of time, he said.
“It is not uncommon for a large crash with fatalities or serious injuries to shut down a highway for three or four hours to map the crash scene,” he said.
There are higher property losses sustained in crashes than all crimes combined, and police spend more time testifying in civil cases relating to vehicle accidents than criminal trials, he added.
“Reproducing evidence and testimony in court related to traffic crashes is frankly a big deal in law enforcement,” he added.
Similarly, aerial crime scene photography can greatly help police reconstruct an incident for jury members, who in this day and age expect strong visuals to help them understand cases.
Searching for missing persons is also a routine police matter.
“It happens thousands of times a day around the country,” he said. A caregiver loses track of a toddler, or perhaps an elderly Alzheimer’s disease patient, and they wander off.
In a “defined perimeter search,” police know the missing subject is nearby. A small UAV can more rapidly search an area than a cop on foot.
Another common scenario is the person pulled over for a routine traffic stop who flees the scene.
“An unmanned aircraft is invaluable in helping locate that person as quickly as possible,” he said.
They can also be used in potentially dangerous, but fairly common, tactical operations such as serving high-risk search or arrest warrants. This is normally a drug dealer who may have weapons, and possibly children, in the home. They are routinely carried out in pre-dawn hours when the subjects are fast asleep, he said.
A small unmanned aerial vehicle can be used to peer into a window to look for dogs sleeping by the door, or where adults or children are located, he said.
In this case, peering into a window is legal and not a violation of privacy rights because there is already a warrant in hand.
Another common situation is a barricade incident, which usually stems from a domestic dispute. One of the arguing parties may lock himself or herself in a home — sometimes with the person he or she is arguing with — or there could be hostages.
Most of these incidents are resolved peacefully, but a UAV can be flown nearby to give police a better idea where the overwrought person is barricaded.
Police surveillance is used as a basis for search warrants or arrest warrants. There is impending legislation that may severely limit that application for UAVs, Shinnamon said.
There are about 17,000 local law enforcement agencies in the United States, and only a handful have police helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft, but the reality is that most police agencies have little money for new technologies such as UAVs.
“Budgets remain tight. Many local governments are making cuts,” he said.
Funding may come from federal grants, although those are shrinking, too, he noted.Photo Credit: Illustration/Thinkstock