(TNS) — The next time the SWAT team is called out in St. Louis County or officers have to search for a missing child, a drone may be part of their mission.
On Oct. 24, the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners unanimously approved the department’s first policy to allow officers to use pilotless aircraft, or drones as they’re more commonly known, under limited circumstances.
The St. Louis Police Foundation, a local nonprofit that pays for equipment for city and county police, has donated four drones to the department at a cost of $80,000.
Nine officers are already licensed to fly them, and have been training on how to use them for months, Chief Jon Belmar said. The approval of the policy means they’ll soon be used in police work, but Belmar said the policy limited their use.
“We won’t launch drones to fly over subdivisions to see what’s going on out there,” Belmar said. “That would be very inappropriate. We went through a legal review process, and there are more restrictions on us as law enforcement than normal people would have with a drone, and we understand why that is.”
In 2013, then-St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson floated the idea of using drones to monitor Cardinals games at Busch Stadium and assist officers during vehicle pursuits. The idea was met with swift backlash from the American Civil Liberties Union and others who argued that laws have not kept up with the threat to privacy posed by drones. The idea never took off, and the department said Wednesday it had no drones.
In 2016 the Federal Aviation Administration published guidelines outlining how the devices could be used in law enforcement.
Since then, police departments across the country have been acquiring them. Locally, Wentzville, Creve Coeur, Eureka and the Madison County Sheriff’s Department have them.
Federal regulations require they fly only up to 400 feet high and must be within their pilot’s line of sight when visibility is at least 3 miles — which means they can’t be effectively used for chasing fleeing cars. Flying over crowds poses too much of a risk of injury, but flying around the perimeter of a crowd is safer, said Wentzville Chief Kurt Frisz.
His department has two drones, which cost $15,000 each. They can fly for about 30 to 35 minutes at a time before they need a new battery. His department has been developing its unmanned aircraft program for more than a year.
Frisz, also past president of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association, which represents police helicopter pilots, said his department used a drone when a man lost track of his two daughters during a summer festival.
“Within minutes, the drone found one of them, and because officers were headed in that direction, they found the other one,” Frisz said.
St. Louis County police borrowed policies from departments like Wentzville to craft their rules.
The policy outlines six circumstances under which the drones can be used. They include documenting crime scenes, planning tactical responses during emergencies, assisting with search-and-rescue operations, assessing the scope of a scene, providing aerial perspective during special circumstances including crowd control, and traffic management.
Otherwise, if a drone will be used to collect evidence of criminal wrongdoing or be used in a manner that might intrude upon reasonable expectations of privacy without pressing circumstances, the department must get a search warrant before conducting the flight, according to the county’s policy.
The policy prohibits any weapons on the drones.
The SWAT team has one of the drones, and crime scene investigators have two. The Special Response Unit, used for a variety of police matters, has the fourth. The cameras on the drones vary in terms of their quality, with SWAT having the most highly sophisticated system, including infrared and GPS capabilities, Lt. Col. Bryan Ludwig said.
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story gave incorrect information about the number of drones assigned to each unit. This version has been corrected.
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