Two years after the initial rollout, the Clark County Sheriff’s Office is expanding its drone program.
The sheriff’s office first unveiled five small quadcopters, with an equal number of deputies assigned to them, as new law enforcement tools in August 2017. Since then, the sheriff’s office has added two additional, larger drones and is hoping to bring four more deputies on board by the end of the year.
“This is really a game changer for us in a lot of areas in a positive way,” Sheriff’s Sgt. Pete Muller said.
The original drones were DJI Mavics, small devices that are easy to carry and deploy due to their size. The sheriff’s office also has a DJI Inspire and, most recently, a DJI Matrice 210 — both larger drones that offer additional capabilities.
Drones were deployed by the office 103 times last year and on 68 occasions this year as of July 25, Sheriff’s Detective Todd Young said. They are used mostly to investigate serious crash scenes, followed by search-and-rescue calls and high-risk search warrant executions that require SWAT presence. Drones allow law enforcement agencies to monitor active emergencies, such as hostage situations, from a safe distance.
“You probably have a situation where an unknown person can do anything,” Sheriff’s Sgt. Jason Granneman said. “Without that overhead view, you don’t know.”
Crime scene investigations and searches for missing people or fugitives may also feature the devices. Images captured by the drones can be used as evidence in criminal cases.
Deputies also touted how much time the drones save. For example, an investigation of a serious traffic crash, which traditionally can take hours, can be reduced to minutes.
Several factors determine which drones are used at a given time, including weather conditions, how much time deputies have and what type of incident is involved. Mavics might work best for an active emergency that requires an immediate response, for instance. The Matrice — featuring an optic camera along with one with both optic and infrared capabilities — could be the best option when searching an area where a missing or wanted subject might be located.
Granneman compared their value to inexpensive helicopters and their function to police dogs.
“There’s a lot of flexibility there,” he said. “It gives us a lot of options.”
Base prices for cheaper drones in the sheriff’s office’s fleet typically run around $1,000, while the newest drones cost about $7,000. Cameras and batteries significantly add to those costs.
The sheriff’s office’s first drone required a nearly 18-month certification process through the Federal Aviation Administration. Each flight, except in some emergency scenarios, must go through a permitting process that can take several hours, and deputies must seek special approval to fly outside of a previously permitted airspace. Pilots undergo 80 hours of online training.
“We have to abide by the rules just like everyone else does and even then some,” Granneman said. “It’s not a simple process whatsoever.”
Drones are becoming increasingly popular as law enforcement tools throughout Washington. Washington State Patrol, for instance, has built a fleet of 111 such devices, according to OPB.
Law enforcement agencies’ increasing propensity toward the aircraft, however, has concerned organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. The organization successfully helped push for an ordinance, adopted in 2017 in Seattle, meant to govern how police can use the technology. The ordinance represented some of the strongest regulations of government drone use in the U.S.
Granneman stressed two additional things about the program. They will not be used to spy on the public without cause, and they will never carry weapons, he said.
“It’s not, like, super-secret cop stuff,” Granneman said. “There’s no Tom Clancy technology on this.”
Locally, deputies say they haven’t heard much push-back. When they do receive calls, people are often unaware of why the drones are being used and, in some cases, whether or not they are actually sheriff’s office property, Muller said.
In the coming months, the program appears set to reach new heights.
“The sky’s the limit as far as what we can use them for,” Granneman said.