In light of new guidelines, agencies debate use of law enforcement drones

In the wake of recent recommendations on law enforcement drone use by an advisory group working with Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, agencies in the region are weighing the potential benefits of investing in the technology.

Most police agencies in Butler County are still waiting to see if the need is there before they spend thousands of taxpayer dollars on a drone that could be grounded more than it’s in the air.

REPORT: Ohio gives police agencies guidelines on drone use

“I think drones certainly have their uses in law enforcement,” said Fairfield Police Lt. Steve Maynard. “I think they’d be very beneficial for conducting some type of aerial search, there are a lot of parks in the city.”

Police departments are starting to purchase, or consider purchasing, unmanned aerial systems, or drones, for usage during investigations. CONTRIBUTED
Police departments are starting to purchase, or consider purchasing, unmanned aerial systems, or drones, for usage during investigations. CONTRIBUTED

Last month, the Ohio Attorney General advisory panel issued 14 regulations on drone use for law enforcement. Among other recommendations, the advisory group urged each law enforcement agency to determine its own set of approved uses of drones, avoid incidentally recording images of people not relevant to an approved use, and instructed law enforcement agencies to obtain a search warrant “before any use where people would have a reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Agencies said they would first need to look at cost when considering drone use. Maynard said the department would need to justify a $20,000 to $25,000 expense, draft a policy and have officers trained to use a drone before one would be purchased.

Most upscale non-commercial drones range from $1,000 to a few thousand dollars. However, Maynard said those are not equipped with technology police agencies would likely require, such as thermal imaging and infrared camera systems. Those drones range from several thousand to $25,000, according to several online companies.

“We can certainly find $25,000 in the budget if it can be justified. It’s not something we have looked into enough to have a good feeling of what it’s going to cost,” Maynard said.

“I see the upside, 100 percent, but there are a lot of other things we need too.”

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Many other police agencies in Butler County, as well as Warren County, have said they don’t have plans at this time to purchase a drone, including Fairfield Twp., Carlisle, Monroe and the Warren County Sheriff’s Office.

West Chester Chief Joel Herzog said his department will continue to explore the option, “but until there is a demonstrated need and the costs of the equipment and training can be justified, we won’t make the purchase.

The city of Hamilton has sent two officers to drone training school in recent months, said Hamilton Police Department Officer Kristy Collins. She said the city has access to the Hamilton Utilities’ drone, but it has not yet been used in a police operation.

Hamilton’s arborist, Dave Bienemann, said the drone would be made available for police operations.

Most police agency officials said that, for now, if they need a drone they can always find a neighboring law enforcement agency.

Butler County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Anthony Dwyer said the department has “at least two drones.”

MORE: Read the guidelines for yourself

One they recently acquired has infrared capabilities that can be used to search for heat, like a missing person, or could be used in the future by fire departments to detect hot spots in walls at large fires.

For the most part, the department is not using drones for surveillance, but more for documentation at incidents like serious crashes that cover a large area, he said.

“When it is valuable is in tracking people or see the linear motion in tracking the flow of vehicles in a serious crash,” Dwyer said.

He said that if the drone were to be used for surveillance, they still have to follow all the rules of search and seizure. The drone has been used at crime scenes, but he declined to give specifics.

“For example, say you have a body in a field,” Dwyer said. “You can see an overview of the paths of ingress and egress from the area, which can be valuable in investigations.”

He said the drone could also be used to quickly search a large space, such as a warehouse, without the use of many officers.

Staff writers Mike Rutledge, Denise Callahan, Ed Richter and Barrie Barber contributed to this story.