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Drones Have Earned Their Place in Small-Town Wisconsin

If one uses national headlines as a guide, it's police in cities that utilize drones and navigate all the issues involved with the technology. As such, the drone program in the small town of Linn, Wis., is a distinct case study.

A DJI Inspire 2 drone
A DJI Inspire 2 drone in flight.
Police drones tend to be associated with big cities, but a Wisconsin town of about 2,200 people has seen the benefits of a drone program since 2015. 

Linn, Wis., spans more than 30 square miles. A significant portion of the area is taken up by a lake that cuts into other communities. Historically, Linn Police Department has spent a lot of time and manpower looking for people who drown. On top of that, if a suspect on the run enters a cornfield that covers thousands of acres, finding the suspect might require 30 to 40 people. 

These practical challenges led the department to buy its first drone in 2015, Chief James Bushey said. 

Within the first three or four months of the purchase, Bushey’s department received a call from a resident who couldn’t find her husband. Evidence suggested the man was in a particular part of the lake. A drone was launched, and after two minutes of flight time, the police found the husband. 

Bushey shared another drowning story to illustrate the efficiency of drone technology. In 2016, someone had drowned in an unknown portion of the lake. With six people and 90 minutes of time, the department located the victim. 

In contrast, Bushey recently offered a drone as a resource during a search for an intoxicated man who had fallen into the lake. The offer was declined, and it took five hours for a team of 13 agencies from Wisconsin and Illinois to find the person without the drone. 

Bushey cited other recent episodes in which drone technology has made a difference in Linn. One incident involved a man who attempted suicide by overdose. A drone found the man who, according to a doctor, would have died in another hour. In another case, an older individual was discovered lying down in a pasture in the middle of the night. For Bushey, these examples more than demonstrate that drones have proven their value to Linn.

“There’s not really a dollar value [on people’s lives],” he said.

One expected benefit for Linn has been the smaller things that drones have accomplished. Town Chairman James Weiss said the drones have helped with building inspections and other tasks that involve surveying. 

“You can cover so much area without physically having to go there,” Weiss said. 

Despite all of the use that Linn has gotten from the drones, Bushey said one has to be aware that drones involve more than an upfront cost. Equipment and training represent two ongoing investments. 

“There’s an outstanding long-term cost,” Bushey said. 

The police department also had to work to build community trust. Weiss pointed out that although the town has heard no negative feedback since the full implementation of the drone program, certain constituents were skeptical when they first learned about the town’s investment in drones.

“We had a smaller newspaper in the area that was very concerned about our use of drones and compared us to George Orwell’s 1984,” Bushey recalled. 

To show that his department takes ethical concerns seriously, Bushey said he talks openly to the media, invites people into his office if they have any issue with the drones, and provides flight records upon request. These efforts have appeared to work well: Community donations completely paid for the department’s latest drones.

Another challenge was developing well-rounded policy and procedures for drones. For this process, Bushey looked at what big-city departments had done with drones. Bushey also hired company Lexipol to overhaul his department’s policy manual. 

“I like to be able to show people that we’ve done our homework,” Bushey said. 

Weiss said Linn’s drone program has shown people that the technology isn’t a passing fad or a case of police just wanting new toys. 

“We’re blessed to be in a position to be able to afford this type of apparatus, and it really helps to fill a void that we had prior to the drone,” Weiss said. 

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.