Police drones responding to 911 calls in Colorado? “This really is the future of law enforcement.”


Arapahoe County Sheriff's Deputy Jamie Foster flies a drone during a training exercise at the Arapahoe County Fairgrounds in Aurora, Colorado, on Tuesday, May 14, 2024. — The Denver Post/TNS

Picture this: You call 911 and a drone comes whirring to your door instead of a police officer.

That could soon be a reality along parts of Colorado’s Front Range. A handful of local law enforcement agencies are considering using drones as first responders – that is, sending them in response to 911 calls – as police departments across Colorado continue to widely embrace the use of the remote-controlled flying machines.

Even the Denver Police Department, which long has resisted drones, is now launching its own programme and wants to eventually use them to respond to 911 calls across the city.

“This really is the future of law enforcement at some point, whether we like it or not,” said Sgt. Jeremiah Gates, who leads the drone unit at the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office.

Like at least 20 Front Range agencies, the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office already uses drones for tasks that include searching for missing people, mapping crime or crash scenes, providing overhead surveillance during SWAT operations or tracking fleeing suspects.

But now, the sheriff’s office is considering using its 20 drones to respond to certain 911 calls, sending them both instead of officers and ahead of officers, Gates said.

A remote-controlled drone could be flown to the location of an incident to scope out the area and stream live video back to its operator, who could provide quick, detailed information to responding officers about what’s going on. Or a drone might be the sole response to the 911 call if the operator can determine from the air that officers don’t need to respond.

It’s a fledgling but growing trend across policing, and one that raises alarm for American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado staff attorney Laura Moraff.

“We’re worried about what it would mean if drones were really just all over the skies in Colorado,” she said. “We are worried about what that would mean for First Amendment activities, for speech and organizing and protesting – because being surveilled by law enforcement, including by drones, can change the way people speak and protest.”

The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office is in the “very early stages” of considering the expanded use and has yet to consider logistics like cost, equipment and public input. But Gates envisions a world where a drone is dispatched to a call about a broken traffic light or a suspicious vehicle instead of a sheriff’s deputy, allowing actual deputies to prioritize more pressing calls for help.

“I could fly the drone over (a reported suspicious vehicle) and say, ‘Hey, that vehicle is not out of place,’ and I never had to send an officer over to bother them and I can clear it with that,” he said. “It’s saving resources.”

A drone could be flown to a reported broken traffic light and stream video of the traffic signal back to its operator, who could determine whether the light is working properly and take the appropriate next steps without ever sending an officer physically to the scene, Gates said.

Drones, which don’t have to deal with traffic congestion, typically arrive on scene faster than officers, so sending them ahead of deputies on higher priority calls could also help keep all involved safe, Gates said. Drones sent out to 911 calls could provide live video of a suspect breaking into a house, help officers follow a suspect in a foot chase, or identify the exact location of a suicidal person, he said.

“What if we get a call about someone with a gun, and the drone is able to get overhead and see it’s not a gun before law enforcement ever contacts them?” he said.

But Moraff said flying drones to low-level reports could just shift the longstanding overpolicing of communities of color to the skies.

“We know there is a problem with people reporting Black people doing normal everyday things as if there is something suspicious going on,” she said. “So sending out a drone for any time there is a 911 call, it could be dangerous and lead to more overpolicing of communities of color. There is also just the risk that the more that we normalize having drones in the skies, the more it can really affect behavior on a massive scale, if we are just looking up and seeing drones all over the place, knowing that police are watching us.”

Some agencies, like the Weld County Sheriff’s Office, have policies that prohibit using drones for surveillance alone. Others, like the Littleton Police Department, use drones “proactively during large public events to monitor certain areas,” spokeswoman Sheera Poelman said.

Loveland police Sgt. Bryan Bartnes, who runs his department’s drone programme, said a drone could potentially deliver an automated external defibrillator to a patient several minutes before first responders arrive. Already, the police department’s largest drone can carry a load of up to 16 pounds, he said, though the agency has not yet taken steps toward launching the flying craft as first responders.

“One drawback to it is, obviously, it requires the citizen on scene to apply it and put it on,” Bartnes said of the hypothetical defibrillator delivery. “Drones don’t do that yet.”

There are also practical barriers: drones have limited range, can be expensive and police departments must follow extensive Federal Aviation Administration regulations around flights, including, often, keeping the drone within an operator’s or observer’s line of sight.

In Commerce City, where drones have been part of policing since 2020, the police department is considering using drones to respond to 911 calls within the next year, said Ben Birdsell, the department’s community service officer supervisor.

“What we see out of it is, it’s a lot cheaper than an officer, basically,” he said.

After resisting, Denver now launching programmeme

At the Denver Police Department, former Chief Robert White said no to drones in 2013 over constitutional concerns, and the department in 2018 literally shelved its sole drone, halting the programme in Denver even as close to 20 metro police agencies embraced the unmanned aircraft.

Denver’s SWAT team uses a single drone for limited indoor searches, and only in emergency situations and with approval, police spokesman Doug Schepman said. The agency also operates one outdoor drone, but has historically relied on the Denver Fire Department to provide drones for other uses.

Now, the department is standing up its own drone programme, using a US$100,000 (RM470,650) from the Denver Police Foundation to kickstart the effort. Denver police expect to buy several drones with that money and begin a traditional drone programme in the next six to 12 months.

“It’s beginning to lift off,” said Phil Gonshak, director of the department’s Strategic Initiatives Bureau. Denver police already have several licensed drone pilots on the force.

But the ultimate goal is to use drones as first responders, he said.

“The long-term scope of what we are trying to do is drones as first responders,” he said. “Basically, having stations on top of each one of our districts so we can respond with drones to critical needs or emergencies that arise throughout the city.”

Such an effort would cost around US$1.5mil (RM7.05mil) to US$2mil (RM9.4mil), he said – funding the police department doesn’t yet have. He expects such a programme would reduce police response times and improve officers’ ability to solve crimes by getting drones on scene and collecting video evidence in minutes.

“We would never simply replace calls-for-service response by police officers,” he said. “The DPD would respond to any call for service where someone is physically requesting a police officer on scene. But if there was a fight at Colfax and Cherokee and we put a drone in the air and there is no fight and nothing causing traffic issues, then we would reroute our police officers to other emergent calls.”

The Denver Police Department already has a detailed, five-page policy on drone use, including a section on “Drones as a First Responder programme.” The short section notes that sending drones to calls before officers could help “tailor the response appropriately to avoid unnecessary escalation,” but doesn’t lay out how such a programme would work.

The current policy outlines permitted uses for drones, which include helping to apprehend fleeing suspects, assisting the bomb squad or SWAT team, documenting a crime scene or crash, assisting in missing person or rescue operations, and responding to reports of shots fired. The policy also allows drones for emergency uses as authorized by department leadership.

Gonshak hopes to create a public-facing dashboard detailing Denver police drone flights as the programme starts in earnest, and said drones will be flown with their cameras constantly on so that the department can ensure the aircraft are being used appropriately.

“So there is no question about what we are doing, because I know there is concern about us flying drones and peering through windows without search warrants,” he said. “We want to be very public-conscientious in our efforts.”

Privacy, transparency concerns

A handful of police departments outside of Colorado already use drones as first responders.

In Chula Vista, California, drones have been dispatched instead of officers to more than 4,000 calls since 2018, allowing officers to avoid going to those calls altogether, according to statistics posted on the city’s website.

So far this year, drones arrived to priority calls in Chula Vista in just under four minutes on average, while officers arrived in about seven minutes, according to the city’s published statistics. On less urgent calls, drones reached the scene in under five minutes while officers took more than 11 minutes, the statistics show.

The city publicly posts maps of its drone flights with details about the location, time and type of call the drones responded to, and drone footage is subject to the same public record release laws and storage retention as officers’ body-worn camera footage. The city also relies on a Technology & Privacy Task Force, made up of residents and experts, to guide its drone use.

It’s critical for law enforcement agencies to be transparent about how and when they use drones, and to listen to residents about what they want in a drone programme, the ACLU’s Moraff said. She worries police departments will start using drones within set guardrails, but then secretly expand the use of the technology beyond what is legal or appropriate as drones become more ubiquitous.

“The cheaper this technology gets, and the easier it gets to deploy, the more risk there is that it will be used everywhere, and used in circumstances when it is not necessary,” she said.

The civil rights organisation can see uses for drones in policing – particularly in response to specific, serious incidents, she said. But agencies must ensure they’re operating within the law.

“Safety and security are not just about reducing crime, prosecuting people and finding evidence,” Moraff said. “A truly safe community is one in which people are free to express their views, to organise together and live their lives without unjustified government intrusion.” – The Denver Post/Tribune News Service

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