Having eyes in the sky with drones is invaluable, Butler County law enforcement say

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

West Chester Twp. is the latest jurisdiction to purchase a drone, which helps the cops hunt down fleeing suspects, find missing persons and investigate traffic crashes, they say the bird’s eye view is invaluable.

The trustees recently approved the $27,690 purchase which includes the drone itself, software, training and a 5% contingency. Several other jurisdictions, including Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones, have had eyes in the sky for some time. Police Chief Joel Herzog told the Journal-News it was time for the township to follow suit.

“The Butler County sheriffs also had drones with several capabilities and we didn’t want to duplicate resources. Why spend additional funds when we can use theirs,” Herzog said. “But we’re finding a decrease in availability being taxed on us, we can’t rely on other agencies to constantly provide those. We thought it was time for us to purchase one.”

The drone has myriad capabilities. They will use it for traffic crash reconstruction, 3-D imaging to help determine cause and fault and for locating missing persons and “suspects in hiding because it will have infrared night vision.” to name a few possible tasks.

The sheriff got his first two drones in 2016 for $1,200 each, the office now has three big 6-blade drones and two smaller devices. Jones said they also have an underwater drone.

“It’s a great asset, we use them on a regular basis for traffic, when there’s a crash, a fatality,” Jones said. “You take them up in the air and you can actually get a visual an photographs of like if they’re running off the road you can see the path, because of the grass, the way it’s laid down and the gravel. You can see the crash pattern, you can see the skid marks, from the air it’s a whole lot different when you’re seeing it from the air versus standing on the ground.”

BCSO Lt. Randall Lambert, who originally pitched the drone idea to the sheriff, said they retired the two original drones because they became obsolete two years later. The three bigger devices are about $4,500 each and the smaller drones cost about $500 each “as far as taxpayer money, they have paid for themselves many, many times over.”

Herzog said they also plan to buy another drone for the tactical (SWAT) team soon and it will cost about $10,000. The drone they just bought cost $15,237 for the hardware, $10,397 for software and $700 for training. They haven’t deployed the new devise yet because two officers are training and need a pilot’s license to fly it.

Other police departments in the county have also purchased drones in the past few years. Monroe got two in 2017, Oxford spent $11,349 buying one in 2020, Fairfield got two last year for $7,000, Hamilton has one shared drone and Middletown is hoping to identify funding to buy one next year.

The Federal Aviation Administration regulates the use of unmanned aircraft and they must be registered. When the sheriff’s office got their first drone there were about 400,000 drones registered, today there are 855,704 commercial and recreational drones in the United States.

Jones said everybody in the county that has a drone is willing to share with those who don’t.

“In this day and time you’ve got to have the equipment, the technology and we share this,” Jones said. “We just don’t use it for us, we use it for other law enforcement agencies and even other counties. There’s air drones and water drones, we all share, police and fire share the drones. They’re pretty handy, really.”

Hamilton Executive Director of Public Safety Scott Scrimizzi said the city has a drone but it is used primarily by the public works department. If they need one they can use that or rely on others for support like they always do “the sheriff has always provided his helicopter anytime I’ve ever requested it, no questions asked.”

Using the drones is not just a matter of putting the one the air, since they can be used as evidence gathering devices there are records retention protocols to follow.

Lambert said they keep records for incidents involving fatalities indefinitely, injury accidents for five years and other evidence “is indefinite depending what the case is.” He said they have roughly 200 records saved.

“Every time the drone goes out doesn’t necessarily mean photographs are taken that needs to be stored,” Lambert said. “Sometimes if it’s a search mission it’s just our bird eye view, we’re not really photographing anything. It’s not like a body cam where you get out of the car it’s instantly on. Anything we take pictures of is anything with an evidence value.”

A bill was introduced in the Ohio House last fall that generally would exclude the use of drone evidence from criminal proceedings without a search warrant. It has been parked in the criminal justice committee and no hearings have been held.

Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser, who happens to be an avid pilot, said “before we start making laws let’s see how they work.”

“Obviously it’s going to be a tug of war between those who assert their rights of privacy in all places and law enforcement that believes that the things that are visible from any location are fair game. That’s going to be the tug of war I assume,” Gmoser said.

“I understand why law enforcement doesn’t want to be restricted from their use in these drone activities and sometimes time is of the essence with respect to locating kidnap victims as an example. Or people that have committed crimes and they’re off in the woods and they’re on the run and they are difficult to locate. Drones can certainly cover a lot of ground in a hurry.”

Lambert said as law enforcement they already have many more restrictions on using drones than the general public has and they are very careful when they deploy them.

Herzog said they are still developing their drone policy but residents can be assured they will not be used for “spying on” anybody.

“It’s not going to be used as far as spying on or looking into residents,” Herzog said. “The law is clear on what you have to follow that you’re not violating someone’s rights as far as search and seizure and that applies to drones as well. I want to be clear we have considered that and we’re not just out there videoing the public.”

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