Whatever anyone thinks of law enforcement having drones, Gary Police Sgt. Sean Jones sure could’ve used one last winter.
Officers were called out to a residential barricade situation, and they went into the house with no real visual to where the suspect was, Jones said during a drone demonstration the department held for local municipal entities Tuesday afternoon at Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana in Gary. Things were quiet, and then the man started shooting from a location they didn’t see, he said.
As the man fired away, the officers couldn’t shoot back because not only did they not have an eye on him, they didn’t know if he had hostages with him, Jones said. A drone, like the one Jones flew and got a read on a truck license plate 771 feet away at a nearby truck stop, would’ve been a much safer option for the officers and the man.
Drones were typically viewed as intrusive spy devices, admitted Steve Hus, field applications specialist for Fayetteville, Arkansas-based drone dealer UVT and Austin-based public safety drone software developer DroneSense Sales Director Mike Mocerino. That, however, changed in 2020, when the pandemic forced officers and other first responders to figure out a way to find people while keeping a safe distance, Hus said.
Hurricanes Hanna and Laura, which ripped through Texas about that time, then provided situations where drone imagery was useful in pre- and post-event planning, Mocerino said.
“The hurricanes kind of shifted people view of drones from surveillance to that of life-saving,” Hus said. “Drones-as-first-responders are pioneered around the idea that they provide better information for officers and first responders to make safer decisions.”
In a period where first responders are becoming harder and harder to replace, the drones—of which Gary has two so far that work in tandem with the city’s Operation Safe Zone program—could conceivably make up for fewer officers, said Gary Police Cmdr. Jack Hamdy. They’d most certainly cut down on time for certain operations.
“It’s clear that they help with fleeing suspects and missing people, and they’re helpful with SWAT in giving visuals prior to executing (a plan). They’re also useful in accident reconstruction,” Hamady said. “Instead of having a few officers tied up reconstructing a scene, a drone can determine access points and calculate distances, and then project it onto our screens in at least a third of the time.”
The drones GPD is eyeing aren’t cheap — it would like to add two at a cost of $16,000 apiece — but they would have thermal imaging, which is great for night imaging and imaging in heavy foliage, Hamady said. The department has a couple funding mechanisms it might tap, such as ARPA funds or a JAG grant, he said, but it’s an important enough expense that he wouldn’t be averse to tapping into forfeiture money to make the purchase.
But it’s way cheaper than an aerial unit, police say.
“When we used to have our own aerial unit, we would send them up, they’d fly for a period, and then they’d have to land, switch out, refuel and inspect the helicopter before going back out. With a drone, you just switch operators, which cuts out a ton of time and expense,” Hamady said. “More, we’d much rather say, ‘We lost an expensive piece of equipment,’ than ‘An officer has been shot in the line of duty.’”
About that: Yes, there will likely be someone who thinks they can shoot a drone out of commission, and they might do just that, said Sgt. Delfin Flores, one of Gary’s drone flight instructors. And then they’ll learn a lesson they’ll never forget.
“Drones are considered aircraft under the FAA, so if you shoot at one, you’re committing a federal offense,” Flores said.
Additionally, the department already has two FAA-licensed drone pilots who’ll train other officers to man the drones, which could become a selling point for officers looking to join the department, Hamady said.
Michelle L. Quinn is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.