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Drones add eyes in the sky for Harvey County law enforcement

Newton police demonstrate new drones

Newton police Lt. Bryan Hall demonstrates one of the department's new drones. Includes footage above a recent injury crash near Newton. (Matt Riedl/The Wichita Eagle/April 9, 2016)
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Newton police Lt. Bryan Hall demonstrates one of the department's new drones. Includes footage above a recent injury crash near Newton. (Matt Riedl/The Wichita Eagle/April 9, 2016)

With the popularity of drones increasing, law enforcement agencies across the country are grappling with how best to use them.

Harvey County thinks it has it figured out.

Six members of the Newton Police Department and the Harvey County Sheriff’s Office have recently been certified to operate drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, in certain situations.

Their use of the technology is a relatively new trend in law enforcement, said Newton police Lt. Bryan Hall.

“Just like there had to be pioneers with body cameras and … in-car cams, I think we’re on the leading edge of this technology,” Hall said.

Drone program

Newton police Lt. Bryan Hall demonstrates one of the department's new drones. Includes footage above a recent injury crash near Newton. (Matt Riedl/The Wichita Eagle/April 9, 2016)

The police department, in partnership with the Harvey County Sheriff’s Office, spent about $15,000 for two drones, a “ground control station” and training for six pilots, according to Hall.

The money came from forfeiture funds – money seized from people involved in criminal activity, Hall said.

The drones technically belong to the Harvey County Emergency Response Team; they are shared between Newton police and the sheriff’s office.

“It’s available 24 hours a day if there’s pilots to fly it,” said Newton police Sgt. Mike Yoder, one of the drone pilots.

“The majority of the other pilots are regular patrol officers. We work 12-hour shifts, (so) the chances of two of them working in general is pretty good.”

The department has a strict policy on when the drones can be deployed, Hall said: They can be used only pursuant to a search warrant or in case of an “exigent circumstance.”

“A missing kid is an exigent circumstance, or maybe an endangered adult who is at the care home and is out in the cold – we want to get that person found,” Hall said.

“Maybe it’s a car chase and the person has run from the officers into the field at night. The way (officers) are going to find (the suspect) is when he shoots at them.

“We can put (drones) up with a … thermal radar and be able to find that missing kid, or suspect, in a matter of minutes.”

We can put (drones) up with a ... thermal radar and be able to find that missing kid, or suspect, in a matter of minutes.

Newton police Lt. Bryan Hall

Footage recorded by the drones will be automatically deleted after 24 hours unless it is considered evidence or if it serves a legitimate training purpose, Hall said.

“If it’s neither one of those, it’ll be erased, because we don’t want some computer getting hacked,” Hall said. “It’s along the same lines as body cameras: Do you want footage of your significant other telling us some horrible thing that happened to them being hacked?

“These are peoples’ lives. We want to protect them.”

Each of the two drones cost approximately $1,500, Hall said, and they are modular. If a propeller breaks, it can be replaced without having to replace the entire drone.

The drone is waterproof and is able to survive falls of up to 60 feet, Hall said. Each drone can operate for up to 30 minutes before needing to be recharged.

They can fly up to 12,000 feet high, but “we don’t operate in the national airspace,” Hall said.

It can be programmed to stay within certain GPS coordinates, to follow the movements of an operator or even to land itself at a designated GPS point if communication with the operator is lost.

“The technology associated with this is far and away superior to anything that’s really out there on the consumer market,” Hall said.

The six Newton pilots are officially certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, as are the drones they fly.

As of now, the department has only a navigation camera for the drones.

Hall said he is working on a proposal for high-definition cameras and thermal imaging equipment, expected to cost around $6,000.

Law enforcement use of drones

In Kansas, few law enforcement agencies regularly use drones, though Hall predicts the technology will begin to find widespread use in a few years.

The Junction City Post reported in October that the Geary County Sheriff’s Office has a consumer-grade drone available for search-and-rescue operations.

The El Dorado Fire Department also has a drone it can use in case of hazardous material spills or in search-and-rescue operations, Hall said.

The Harvey County pilots are the first in the Wichita area to use drones for police work.

And in February, Shawnee police worked with a licensed drone operator to search for an armed assault suspect, according to Kansas City-area media outlets.

“For about a third of a patrol car in price, we’re able to do this,” Hall said. “This will last for years and provide us 80 percent of the benefit of a helicopter at a fraction of the price.”

Hall listed potential situations in which the department’s drones could be effective.

▪ Injury crashes: A drone could provide a bird’s-eye view of a major crash, place GPS tags on where cars came to rest, and investigators could reconstruct the crash using Google Earth instead of drawing it out in paper.

▪ Train derailments: A drone could be sent up to see whether hazardous material is leaking out of an overturned freight train car before sending in emergency crews to deal with the situation.

▪ SWAT callouts: A drone could monitor a situation in which a suspect has barricaded himself or herself inside a home and could protect officers.

▪ Wildfires: A drone could quickly provide a complete view of an active wildfire, which could then be relayed to firefighters. The drones could not fly in 50-plus-mph winds, though – as was the case in the recent wildfires in Kansas.

▪ Disaster relief: A drone could fly over the wreckage from a major tornado and spot people buried under rubble using thermal imaging.

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