Last month, the Northeast Police Department sent investigator Matthew Dusek to drone school.
The department is considering investing in unmanned aerial vehicle technology and training so it can use footage for crash scene reconstruction.
Hosted by the Euless Police Department, the course gave Dusek a chance to use drone footage and three-dimensional modeling software. Right now, a severe crash requires road closures in part to give investigators time to map out the incident with surveying equipment. The hope is that using drones, the time spent doing that would be cut substantially, Dusek said.
This is important not just for the convenience of motorists, but also to lessen the risks of “secondary crashes,” he said.
But that is just one potential application for the technology. The Little Elm Police Department has had training and equipment in place since 2017. Its fleet consists of three consumer-level drones, which have been used in crime suppression and search and rescue operations.
Patrol officer Aaron Scott was one of the first five officers trained to pilot a drone for the department. Since then, another five have been trained.
“We’re trying to be very open about what we’re using these [drones] for,” Scott said. “We are coming up with new ways to use them all the time. We’re trying to come up with lessons learned from other agencies about what they’re doing well with them and what’s not working out with them. But so far, we love it.”
Two department drones are equipped with cameras that track heat signatures. Using one of the drones in February, officers assisted Northeast police by locating a man hiding in a shed. The man had been drinking and had been last seen by his wife with a rifle in his hand, according to the police report.
Upgraded public service models of the consumer-level Mavic Pro, by the company DJI, the department’s drones are also equipped with a loud speaker attachment, a spot light and strobe light. They can record photos and videos. Small enough to hold in one hand, they can fly in winds of up to 30 miles an hour, Scott said.
Travis Calendine, the town’s emergency management director, received certification from the Federal Aviation Administration as a drone pilot and helped the department obtain a certificate of authorization from the agency to fly drones in town. He then developed a five-day training block for selected pilots, Scott said.
Drones have been used in search and rescue operations along with helicopter and scent hounds. Little Elm Police officers have used them to track stolen vehicles. While an officer conducts surveillance using a drone, other officers are staged to intercept the vehicle.
“Unless you can catch someone operating that motor vehicle, the district attorney’s office is not very likely to prosecute,” Scott said.
A few months ago, the department conducted a surveillance over a parking lot where several stolen vehicles were observed. Officers piloting a drone noticed a suspicious person trying to escape the scene.
Scott submitted video footage from that case to the district attorney’s office. This was the first time that has been done by the Little Elm department.
“It will be interesting from a prosecution standpoint how that will play out,” Scott said.
Scott said he operates under the premise that if something is observable from a commercial or civilian aircraft, then subjects do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The state requires law enforcement agencies to file reports on flights so the governor’s office can evaluate how they are using drones.
At this point, the Northeast Police Department is only exploring the use of drones for crash reconstruction. It has not committed to purchasing equipment or paying for additional training besides the two-day course Dusek completed last month.
To fund a potential program, Dusek said, the department would have to ask for it through its regular budgeting process. It could potentially use civil forfeiture revenue to purchase equipment.