North Little Rock Police Department drones fly despite legislation to phase them out

8 pilots use them to track suspects, locate missing people

A drone operated by a police investigator flies over the scene of a small plane crash in a residential neighborhood in Pennsylvania in this August 2019 file photo. (AP/Matt Rourke)
A drone operated by a police investigator flies over the scene of a small plane crash in a residential neighborhood in Pennsylvania in this August 2019 file photo. (AP/Matt Rourke)

Earlier this month, Pulaski County sheriff's office deputies were dispatched to Pryer Lane in reference to a violation of a protection order.

Deputies had information that a male suspect ran inside a residence. After several attempts to ask the man to surrender, the suspect fled to a wooded area behind a business where his vehicle was located. North Little Rock police officers assisted the sheriff's office and deployed drones with thermal capabilities and brought a K-9 unit in search of the suspect.

With the help of the thermal drone images and K-9, the suspect surrendered without incident.

The arrest made on March 13 is just one example of how police agencies are using drones these days -- not just for large-scale events, but for almost every aspect of police work.

A study by Bard College reported at least 1,578 state and local police, sheriff, fire and emergency services agencies in the U.S. have acquired drones. About 70% of "disclosed public safety agencies with drones work in law enforcement," the study found. Five states -- California, Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin and Florida -- have the greatest number of public safety agencies with drones, according to the study. The college says the actual numbers are likely much larger.

Consumer drones became widely available in the early 2010s, but strict U.S. regulations around civilian drone use at first kept police agencies from using drones widely, with limited exceptions, such as Florida's Miami-Dade County in 2010, according to the Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

The prospect that police might use drones as well caused serious concern among privacy and civil liberties activists, and a number of municipalities preemptively banned police drones, until 2016, when the Federal Aviation Administration passed what's known as the "Part 107" rule, which opened up American airspace to non-hobby drone use, the Brookings Institute said.

"Police drone use promptly exploded, with a record number of agencies acquiring their own drones in 2017," according to the Brookings Institute.

The North Little Rock Police Department tracks down suspects with drones on a regular basis. Property checks, vehicle pursuits, high-risk traffic stops, missing person reports, barricaded suspects, suspects who run on foot, marathon races, railroad rescues and more are other uses of drones for officers' and civilians' safety.

The department first began to use drones in 2008, with Chief Patrick Thessing leading the team. Now, they have eight licensed drone pilots and five on the team. Each pilot has two drones in their patrol vehicles, an Autel Robotics Evo ll Enterprise Dual and a smaller Autel Robotics Nano.

The SWAT team has a larger Brinc Lemar drone for specialty missions.

The Autel Robotics Evo ll has 8K video resolution, a 50-megapixel still camera and an eight-palette thermal capability. The different palettes include white hot and black hot which help pick up people against background areas. It also has a speaker on it for officers to announce their presence in emergencies. It can fly for up to 30 minutes on one battery charge.

The Autel Robotics Nano has cages around the propellers to keep them from breaking when they bump into walls. It has a 48-megapixel camera that can fly for 20 to 25 minutes on one battery charge.

The Brinc Lemar has a glass break capability to go through windows, a two-way communication system and a monitoring ability for up to 18 hours. If it turns upside down, it can flip itself and take off to fly. The Brinc Lemar is especially based for tactical teams and flies completely differently from other drones.

Jon Fisher, a patrol sergeant and drone team leader said the team has monthly training to help with "eye-thumb coordination" and get pilots out of their comfort zone. Arkansas State Police and Sherwood Police Department have joined the department on training days to sharpen their skills.

"We want to be that go-to resource for all the other agencies," he said. "State Police is great, we have wonderful relationships with them."

Recently, the department has been getting reports of people flying their drones at night without a license, Fisher said.

"The biggest thing I want to get out is if you're going to fly it, be trained on it," he said. "If you're gonna fly for any commercial purposes, if you're gonna fly for a buddy, they're gonna give you tickets to a ballgame, you gotta get certified. There are laws, there's an Arkansas State law about improper use of unmanned aircraft."

Officer Rick Beaston has been with the department for 23 years and has over 400 flight hours as a drone pilot.

Beaston said he had just flown out a drone on Tuesday night to a liquor store where someone was swearing at a clerk and pulled out a gun.

"They were making contact just as I was getting in the area, so our biggest problem with flying is getting there on time," he said. "We have to get there too. So a lot of times in this line of work things are over in 30 seconds and it's just not enough time for us to get in the air. We can streamline it and from the time I stop to the time I go airborne can be less than a minute, but it's still I gotta get there just like they do."

Officer Chris Abel said people who run on foot are the number one use for drones.

"If they run on foot our thermal cameras are able to see people really well," he said. "I'd say that when we get people that run, especially if we can get a good perimeter and we know that they're in a wooded area or hiding in backyards, then instead of having officers have to go check every bush, we're able to locate them."

Beaston said officers are also able to see if suspects have any weapons in their hands to prepare to de-escalate situations.

Fisher added that it's "absolutely amazing" how officers can train their eyes through experience and exposure to pick out specific officers over the thermal cameras.

The smaller Autel Nano drones have allowed officers to inspect buildings from the inside and declare them clear before entering.

"Going forward, we're going to have more of an ability to read the entire thing without ever having an officer put in a dangerous situation," Fisher said.

Beaston agreed that drones will minimize the need for manpower and the department won't have to put as many officers in danger.

"Just about any time we put a drone in the air, we can almost say it's a success because we fly for so many different things," Fisher said. "Nine times out of 10 if we have a bigger pursuit and the guy or gal or whoever bails on foot, we normally end up finding them. Sometimes it's a lengthy chase, but we will end up finding them and apprehending them for the most part."

On SWAT team missions, Beaston said it's now more convenient to approach the scene from the bearcat vehicle with a drone in the air to see which side of the location to enter from.

"We can see if somebody sneaks through the perimeter and what we call a squirter, and tries to run away," Fisher said. "I mean, it's just so many different things we can use it for and it's all for the safety of the public in the grand scheme of things."

Abel mentioned that the government wants to stay away from the drone manufacturer Da-Jiang Innovations Sciences and Technologies or DJI, from China.

Several U.S. Senators including Tom Cotton of Arkansas have introduced the Countering CCP Drones Act to add Chinese Communist Party affiliated drone company Da-Jiang Innovations to the Federal Communications Commission's Covered List. This list identifies telecommunication equipment that poses a threat to America's national security and bans it from U.S. communications infrastructure.

On March 16, Rep. Brit McKenzie introduced House Bill 1653, which would prohibit the purchase of small unmanned aircrafts manufactured or assembled by a covered foreign entity.

Fisher said, if the legislation goes through, all public safety departments will have until 2025 to phase out all DJI drones and other drones purchased from foreign countries.

The house committee meeting on state agencies and governmental affairs covering HB1653 is on Wednesday, March 29.

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