Law enforcement using drones to catch crooks

Police around Kitsap County have taken to the air to find bad guys hiding in the woods, locate lost kids and spot burglary suspects concealed on rooftops.

We’re not just talking planes — we’re talking drones.

Drones used by law enforcement are far more sophisticated than the type dad purchases for kids at Walmart. These high-flying crimefighters are no bigger than a pizza and weigh a few pounds. Many are equipped with a high-grade video camera that beams down a broadcast-quality aerial view of an area to computers or cell phones of officers on the ground. Some can soar hundreds of feet in the air and zoom around crime scenes at a whopping 45 mph. Advanced versions carry infrared systems that can locate sources of heat – used for suspects hiding at night or a car engine that was recently in use.

A majority of police agencies around the county use high-tech drones – officially called “unmanned aircraft.” The sheriff’s office operates the largest fleet with five. Bremerton and Poulsbo each have two. Suquamish police occasionally use a drone from another agency. Port Orchard police have three of the aerial acrobats.

“We have used them when conducting search and rescue operations, SWAT, major traffic collision investigations, crime scene investigations,” Sheriff John Gese said. “They can be used in other patrol functions when it would be a benefit to have an aerial view of a scene. Drones have been a very functional, useful tool for our agency. We have found them to be worth the investment.”

Poulsbo police also appreciate them. “In burglar alarms at businesses, with a drone we can search the roof, the back and sides of the building that are blocked by fences. Before, we’d have to have our guys climb fences or look into areas that sometimes you can’t access. From a hundred feet in the air, you can see what you need to see,” Lt. Howard Leeming said. “I’ve also utilized a drone on fire calls. I support (fire crews) by getting an overview of the burning building or grass fires. I’ll stand next to the fire chief, and he can look at my screen and determine where the hot spots are.”

Drone use by Port Orchard police is indicative of how other local law enforcement agencies use the devices.

The department has two types — one for outdoors and a smaller one for indoors, said Sgt. Trey Holden, who oversees the program. The outdoor version weighs about 5 pounds, is quiet and fast. It has a range of 5 miles but for safety reasons is only used within line-of-sight. In seconds, it can reach a height of 400 feet. FAA regulations limit the height such devices can go to avoid them interfering with planes.

A number of attachments can be placed on drones. A speaker can be clipped on to allow officers to communicate with a suspect from the airborne unit. The speaker can clearly be heard for 500 feet, Holden said.

That came in handy in a burglary call at a construction sight consisting of several four-story apartment buildings. “You are talking hundreds of units. We got a call from the company saying they had a video trip of possible burglaries in the construction site. We surrounded the perimeter of property with officers and flew the drone in and through the speaker announced, ‘This is the Port Orchard police department. You are trespassing. You need to vacate this area immediately.’ And boom, the guy takes off right into the containment, and he was arrested for burglary,” the sergeant said.

In another instance, police were called to locate an autistic child who had wandered off. The parents had said the child responded better to “Buddy” than his own name. Officers flew the drone over large construction near South Sound Cinema, a site the boy had previously visited. Once the device was overhead officers called out on the speaker, “Hey Buddy, time to go home.” The boy was located.

The outdoor unit is equipped with an infrared system that detects heat. A powerful spotlight can also be attached to enable officers to shine a light on a search area or hover near a stopped car to illuminate the interior so officers can see what and who is in the vehicle.

Drones cost between $1,800 and $2,500.

Port Orchard’s drones have been incorporated into the department’s marine patrol program. They do aerial surveys of derelict vessels around Sinclair Inlet and help investigate watercraft undergoing an emergency.

Instead of taking time to warm up the department’s boat and manning it with two officers, Holden said, “I can walk to the waterfront, launch the drone and be over (a boat) literally within half a minute.”

Holden fired up a drone following a recent call about a possible theft from a boat in the inlet. “I stayed a couple of hundred feet above the vessel and watched what they were doing. Even from a couple of hundred feet I can zoom in and see what’s going on, who’s on board, and what they are doing. They started to row in. I was there when they came ashore to ask them what they were doing on the boat.”

It turned out the boat belonged to the individuals and was sinking. They were offloading items. Still, the drone enabled Holden to travel to the scene and investigate.

In Port Orchard, as in other jurisdictions, drones also can take aerial photographs of accident scenes.

Officers have also responded with South Kitsap Fire to a “patient” reported to be having issues, Holden said. Once at the building where the person resided responders heard a gunshot. They retreated. A drone was flown down the hallway so officers could see what was going on. The device traveled to the person’s room, and officers discovered he had shot himself. “That was one of those situations you hear a gunshot and instead of exposing medical or police personnel to what could potentially be a problem you send in the drone to see what’s happening,” he said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called the department requesting officers look into a report of gray whale tangled in a net. Holden sent a drone over the inlet to look. But no whale was located – apparently, it had made it to safety. Other times the flying unit is called to examine whether a disabled boat has caused an oil spill.

This past summer there was a call regarding domestic violence involving possible theft of guns. A family member reported seeing a security video showing the person had broken into a house. “Once again – to not expose officers to potential danger – from down the street I launched the drone and flew it to the front yard. I was able to go there to search the area with the drone to make sure that they weren’t hiding somewhere in the yard,” Holden said.

The POPD recently acquired a small drone designed to travel around indoor settings. The small unit is able to whiz down hallways, go up and down stairways, peek around corners, and look under desks.

“There will be times people get home and see their front door has been kicked in. When we arrive, we can set up containment around the house, so someone is in the front and back. Instead of us having to walk inside the front door, I can launch the drone and go inside and do a search inside the house and see if someone is hiding inside,” he said.

Drone training

A toy drone can be purchased and be buzzing around the backyard in no time. But to operate professional units used by law enforcement requires FAA certification, Holden said. An officer undergoes 50 hours of training to learn drone aerodynamics, airspace classifications and how to read aviation maps and weather systems. “It’s basically ground school for pilots,” he said. The final test takes place at an airport and is administered by the FAA. Upon successful completion, the operator becomes a certified unmanned aircraft systems pilot.

Privacy concerns

There is concern that drone use can impinge on citizens’ right to privacy. To help offset such worries, Port Orchard police formulated policies pertaining to drone use. “Any pictures or videos that we take are submitted into evidence, and we do a police report. It’s trying to keep that balance of public safety but not have people think that they are being watched by Big Brother inappropriately,” Holden said.

A monthly report detailing every drone use is published on the POPD’s website. It includes a brief description of the incident. It’s important the department is transparent with the community, Port Orchard police chief Matt Brown said.

The chief also noted while drones are an asset to those in blue, “Drones are not a substitute for officers doing their work. It’s an additional means of providing information.”

Sgt. Trey Holden wears a headset so he can see where to guide the drone.

Sgt. Trey Holden wears a headset so he can see where to guide the drone.

Indoor drones aren’t much bigger than a cell phone.

Indoor drones aren’t much bigger than a cell phone.