Enlarge / An Alameda County sheriff’s deputy showed this drone-captured footage of a recent fire on the Oakland-Emeryville border.Cyrus Farivar
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SAN JOSE, Calif.—Speaking at the Drone World Expo on Tuesday, a panel of four law enforcement officers resoundingly approved their use and likely near-term expansion of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles.
“I really feel that small UAVs are a cost-effective way of enhancing public safety,” Cmdr. Tom Madigan, of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, told an assembled group of mostly fellow deputies and officers. “I hope in the near future we will be able to deploy these out of a patrol car or a fire truck.”
As one of the largest law enforcement agencies in Northern California, with a fleet of six drones that are often loaned out and used on behalf of other public safety agencies from Monterey County to the Oregon border, the ACSO has been busy.
“As of last week, we have deployed 70 real world missions in the last year,” he said. “We have quickly become one of the most active UAV units in the nation, and we’re easily the biggest.”
Enlarge / Cmdr. Tom Madigan (second from right) spoke at the conference on Tuesday.
Cmdr. Madigan highlighted a recent mission in which the ACSO’s drone was used as part of an emergency response to a massive fire of a 100-unit building on the Oakland-Emeryville border.
He showed drone-captured footage from that fire and from other recent incidents that the ACSO has responded to.
Also in July 2016, Ars reported on an incident in which the ACSO used a drone to monitor the bust of an illegal casino that was being operated out of a house in San Leandro. That incident marked the third time in a month that the ACSO has deployed one of its drones. The first incident was a traffic stop in Fremont that went awry and left two police officers shot. The second incident involved a false alarm of a reported active shooter at a local military base.
Madigan touched on some earlier public protest that happened in Alameda County—“the early adopters get hammered pretty hard”—and noted that people initially believed that the county had obtained larger, military-style drones.
“We’re talking about very limited emergencies and very small UAVs,” he said. “I would not want a Predator drone above my house, hell no, but we’re not talking about that.”
Big drone country
Madigan was flanked by his counterparts from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, and North Dakota’s Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department.
Lt. Jason Vickery said the SDCSD’s policy was approved in July 2016 for its four drones, some of which have “various FLIRs,” or infrared cameras. Like Alameda, San Diego County’s top cops outlined specific kinds of missions that they would respond to, including life-threatening situations, bomb scares, SWAT deployments, arson, missing persons, hazardous materials, officer-involved shootings, and others.
“We’ve flown one mission, one SWAT mission, and it worked great,” he said.
For his part, Alan Frazier, a deputy sheriff at the Grand Forks County department, said that with 32 sworn officers serving a largely rural county, having inexpensive drones was a godsend, given that “in our wildest dreams we will never be able to have [conventional] air support.” (His department, in a county with a population of about 66,000, now has a fleet of five drones.)
The Peace Garden State has become one of the nation’s hubs for the drone industry, with a federally approved drone testing facility, a military drone base, and an active drone studies program at the University of North Dakota. There is even a regular university committee that meets to discuss drone privacy issues.
“We didn’t feel like we had any secrets, and we wanted them to know about it—to my knowledge we haven’t had any pushback,” Deputy Frazier said. “The vast majority of press has been very, very positive.”
His agency is one of several that has been responding to the recent Dakota Access Pipeline protests—an attempt to halt a planned oil pipeline that many believe would damage the local water supply and desecrate tribal lands.
The North Dakota deputy underscored the importance of the use of law enforcement drones in his state but did not mention recent reports of other sheriff’s deputies firing at a civilian’s drone.
“Because it’s a peaceful protest, they’re throwing peaceful prayer Molotov cocktails at us,” Frazier said, which elicited chuckles from the room.