Last June, the Metropolitan Law Enforcement Council’s SWAT team went into the South Shore Plaza in Braintree looking for suspects after a shooting, but they didn’t go in blind. They were led by a Franklin Police Department drone.
“It’s a great tactical tool,” said Franklin Police Lt. Jim West, a department drone operator. “The drone was able to go ahead and make sure there was no one waiting for them when they went around a corner.”
Franklin is just one of several local police departments that have added drones to their toolboxes.
The uses of the drones are many, local police chiefs said, from tactical uses – such as the incident at the mall described by West – to social media, community policing and everything in between.
“It’s going to have unlimited uses,” said acting Milford Police Chief James Falvey, whose department just recently got a drone. “Whatever we can use it for to help people in the community, we will use it.”
What it takes to have a police drone
Other area departments that have drones include Millis, Sudbury and Westborough.
For police, adding a drone to the department’s arsenal isn’t a simple process of just buying it and then flying it. All operators need to get Certification of Operations from the Federal Aviation Administration, Westborough Police Sgt. Cliff Luce said.
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The certificate gives officers the legal right to use the drone beyond what is allowed for non-official purposes, such as being able to use the drone outside of the user’s physical sight, as well as the height a drone can go.
Westborough started its drone program in July 2017. The first time it was used was to monitor traffic during the town’s 300th anniversary celebration, Luce said.
“If there was a traffic issue, we could deploy the drone to go see what it was before deploying an officer,” he said. “We could see if it was a problem that would take care of itself so we didn’t send an officer there for nothing.”
What are the benefits of drones in law enforcement?
The drones used locally all have similar capabilities. They have two cameras – one standard and one with infrared capabilities. They all can send back a live video feed to the operator or even post live on social media websites such as Facebook.
They also have attachments that can be added, such as a spotlight, a loudspeaker and a strobe light for night use.
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The Sudbury Police Department got its drone about a year ago, and it has been used at town events as well as at accident scenes and to search for missing people.
“It’s very useful for accident reconstruction,” said Police Chief Scott Nix. “You can actually document the accident scene from above and from several angles. With the appropriate software, it kind of maps the whole scene for you. We’ve also deployed it when we have had missing people because it gives us a great aerial view.”
Millis Police Chief Chris Soffayer said his department originally purchased a drone about two years ago. It has been a popular tool in town.
“We got it initially for social media – social media is big,” he said. “For example, if there is road construction going on we can use it to generate a detour map and put that up on social media.”
The Wayland Police and Fire departments share a drone, acting Police Chief Sean Gibbons said. The main use will likely be search and rescue, but it is not in service because no one has yet been trained to use it, he said.
Although not all departments have a drone, several area department chiefs and spokespeople have said they are looking into getting drones.
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Hudson Police Chief Richard DiPersio said his department just recently lost out on a grant to buy a drone, while Framingham, Ashland and Marlborough all said they are looking into getting a drone.
The Natick Police Department does not have a drone, but there is a town drone assigned to the Department of Public Works it can use if needed, spokeswoman Lt. Cara Rossi said.
Police drone operators need to be FAA trained
In Milford, the department has not started using its drone yet, but will once officers are trained and receive FAA approval. Falvey said he believes it will be used in many situations.
“It’s not just going to be a big help for our department, but it can help the fire department look for brushfires,” said Falvey. “Our drone has thermal sensors that can detect heat. It’s much faster and covers an area much quicker than on foot.”
Many departments help out other departments with the drones. In Westborough, they did a check of the town’s water tower for the Department of Public Works, and in Franklin, the department has used it to help the Board of Health search for an oil spill in a local pond.
Most local departments spent around $5,000 for their drones, which includes the cameras and attachments.
Are drones worth the money?
Franklin, which has two drones – a small one that cost around $500 that can be used indoors and a larger one that cost $20,000.
Despite the high cost, West said it’s worth it based on the usage.
“It’s expensive, but if you look at the grand scheme of things, it’s used a lot by a lot of our town departments,” said West. “When you look at officer safety and fire safety, you can’t put a cost on that.”
Norman Miller can be reached at 508-626-3823 or [email protected] For up-to-date public safety news, follow Norman Miller on Twitter @Norman_MillerMW or on Facebook at facebook.com/NormanMillerCrime.