Gone are the days when police in need of a birds-eye-view were required to take the Great Falls Fire Rescue bucket to third-story heights.
It’s 2018: Hoverboards have come and gone, cell phone towers are in the process of filling out Yellowstone National Park and the Great Falls Police Department is gaining the higher ground with drones.
And it’s paid off. In a two-week span in May, GFPD deployed the drone to locate a man locked in an apartment building during a standoff, led a search and rescue boat to a drowned man from the Missouri River and cleared the area for officers searching the railroad tracks on the west bank, where someone had reported a suspicious-looking man with a rifle (the man was never located).
“It’s going to augment stuff we do on an everyday basis,” GFPD Sgt. Rob Beall said.
The newest utility in GFPD’s toolbox gives captures a dimensional view of the scene, not just during the initial investigation but in the following months, as well as in the courtroom.
“This provides investigators, prosecutors and jurors a view they wouldn’t otherwise have,” he said.
The Great Falls Police Protective Association last year purchased two drones for the force, a primary drone, a DJI Matrice 200, and a smaller practice drone. In that time the city police have flown the drone on 14 missions — three major crime scenes, three investigations and high-risk operations, five search-and-rescue efforts, two missing children calls and one public relations project. Seven officers are Federal Aviation Administration-certified, and two more will become so in the coming year.
The DJI drone, approximately 3 feet by 3 feet in size, is quiet, precise and can zip around at top speeds of 40 mph. Beall said the department chose this specific model because of its autonomous flight capabilities and safety protocols. If the battery runs low, for example, the drone returns to the controller. And the GPS system built into the drone sends data back to the mobile app, so the entire flight can be reviewed later. It’s also built for stability in rugged conditions, like brutal snow storms and the infamously hellish northcentral Montana winds. The primary drone alone cost about $15,000; the practice drone is, frankly, a cheaper, lesser model on which less money will be lost when it is inevitably destroyed.
How GFPD, like a commercial photography company might fly a drone, uses two pilots to operate it. One flies the drone, the other manipulates the gimble, which allows the 4K camera to turn and move independently of the drone.
“You’ve really got to learn to communicate with each other because oftentimes you’re looking at two different things,” GFPD Senior Police Officer Aaron McAdam said.
Anytime the drone team puts that Unmanned Aerial System into the air, it has to notify Great Falls International Airport, Mercy Flight and Malmstrom. The city police also co-op some cases with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s flight teams, especially when a drone isn’t up to the scale of the operation, so they also stay in the loop. The drone also can’t be flown higher than 400 feet, per federal regulation.
Sgt. and Media Relations Officer Jim Wells understands there may be some community concern regarding the department’s use of its new eyes-in-the-skies, or in other words, former technologies once used solely by the military. On Aug. 1, a Fairfax County, Va., community stalled expanding its drone use to police and first responders over privacy concerns, WTOP reported. One of the Fairfax County commissioners expressed some concern about the possibility of capturing images of someone’s backyard and catching something illegal — and worth an arrest warrant.
The device won’t be used for low-intensity traffic enforcement, Wells said, but for its immediacy in high-risk situations. Beall said the drone team’s policy is designed for safety and privacy.
“It is 100 percent response-based,” Wells said. “If someone you love is in danger, what pieces of equipment do you want us to not have?”
The camera’s capabilities include night and infrared vision, which comes in handy when looking for a vehicle that’s been running recently. The drone also made a breakthrough in the Belt Creek search and rescue effort last year for two girls. The pilots buzzed it up the creek, nearly overtop the girls, then turned it back down the creek. The pilots hadn’t angled their camera in their direction, so they didn’t actually know were they were there, but the girls knew which direction to head.
On top of flying for work, many of the officers have taken up flying off-duty.
“It’s entertaining,” Beall, who also has a regular pilot’s certification, said. “You can get a different perspective and see things you would never see otherwise. It’s definitely a hobby.”
Wells called the drone program a huge leap for policework, considering even a Taser was once some contraption from the future.
“It’s a huge leap,” he said. “If you told me we’d have a drone, I would have laughed you off.”
How far the drone program will expand remains to be seen, as do the continued benefits. It happens to be cheaper to insure a drone than it is a helicopter, and easier to replace than a human life.
“It’s to go save a life,” Wells said. “That’s what we do.”
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