Public Safety & Homeland Security

Hamilton County, Tenn., Sheriff's Office to Begin Using Drones for Law Enforcement

The sheriff's office is among more than 80 law enforcement agencies, colleges and other government agencies across the country that have been granted or applied for permits to fly the aircraft.

by Yolanda Putman, Chattanooga Times/Free Press, Tenn. / October 4, 2016
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(TNS) — The Hamilton County, Tenn., Sheriff's Office will begin using drones to gather evidence for court cases, detect bombs and find missing persons. However, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond assures the public the equipment will not invade people's right to privacy.

"We want to make sure the public understands this is not about spying on people or looking in their bedroom windows," he said. "This is all about following the law making sure that this is supportive of good policing."

Hammond spoke Monday at a news conference to announce plans to use the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

The Sheriff's Office is among more than 80 law enforcement agencies, colleges and other government agencies across the country that have been granted or applied for permits to fly the aircraft, according to a Hamilton County Sheriff's Office news release.

Hammond said Hamilton County's Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security also has the equipment.

The department's ultimate goal is to use drones for life-saving efforts, such as locating missing persons and monitoring incidents in which a hazardous condition exists. It also can be used to take aerial photos of crime scenes, fire scenes and traffic accidents, providing a perspective that could be invaluable to investigators, according to the news release.

Law enforcement personnel have been working on training to use the system since December 2014. Officials estimate the cost of the project so far has been about $9,000 for training conducted by Avionics Solutions and another $10,000 for five drones for operational use and one drone for training.

The drones so far have been used only in testing, but are ready now to assist in operations such as search and rescue and SWAT operations, Hammond said.

He explained that District Attorney General Neal Pinkston oversees use of the equipment and makes sure it is used within legal guidelines.

Authorizing use of the drones will be no different than authorizing a search warrant, Pinkston said. There must be enough probable cause to seek a search warrant.

"There's no blanket rule. It's generally a case-by-case analysis on the facts of the case," he said.

Hammond said the drones add a safety layer for officers.

"Some of you may remember the tragic case a couple of years ago where the lady drove off the mountain in her car and we didn't find her body for almost a year. We probably could have much quicker resolved that case if we had had this kind of equipment. We think it will add a layer of quicker response to what we do in law enforcement," he said.

Gail Palmgren was missing from April 30, 2011, until her remains were found about eight months later in December. Law enforcement searched on foot on and around Signal Mountain, but the trees had to drop their leaves before an aerial search could be effective, according to news reports.

Evidence the UAS gathers will be stored like other video evidence, Hammond said.

Law enforcement officials demonstrated at Monday's news conference how the drones might be used.

The first scenario involved a car sitting in an open field at the Tennessee Riverpark. Det. Marty Dunn operated the drone to bring an overall view of the car on a screen several feet away from the car. Then he showed how it could detect what was inside the car by showing a gun from the car's interior on the screen.

Then Dunn directed the drone to hover over the Tennessee River and trace along the riverbank until it located a young child to show how the equipment could be used for search and rescue.

Only five or six law enforcement officers are certified to use the equipment, and the sheriff's office follows all federal regulations on the equipment used, Hammond said.

He said the Federal Aviation Administration requires the equipment be used below 400 feet, and it must stay about 5 miles away from the airport.

He said the system is part of an ongoing effort to use technology to save taxpayer money.

"We'll be demonstrating to you some of our unmanned aircraft that will be used for various things here in our county to assist law enforcement, especially in the area of search and rescue," Hammond said.

"It could be a SWAT operation. It could be a major accident or hazardous spill of some kind that we would be called upon for evidence gathering. Those kinds of things. What it is not is something that we're just going to just routinely roll out there for use."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

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