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Drones Are Catching on in Public Safety Circles, But Denver PD Isn’t Totally Convinced

A consumer-grade drone was shelved after the department decided to not to pursue a program.

(TNS) — As a growing number of Colorado public safety agencies launch drones to help firefighting efforts, rescue lost hikers and take pictures of crime scenes, Denver’s police and fire departments are debating the merits of using unmanned aircraft.

For now, the Denver Police Department has shelved a consumer-grade drone recently purchased for nearly $3,000 after the administration nixed the crime lab’s plan to use it to photograph crime scenes.

“We are not going to move forward with the drone program at this time,” said Sonny Jackson, a department spokesman. “If we do, we will move forward with community input.”

Meanwhile, the Denver Fire Department solicited bids in July to purchase an Aeryon SkyRanger drone and accessories, including two camera lenses. The city’s firefighters plan to use the drone when dealing with all sorts of incidents, including structure fires, hazardous material spills and rescues — and the department intends to share the aerial vehicle with other jurisdictions, said Greg Pixley, a Denver fire spokesman.

The growing fleet of public safety drones, however, concerns some law enforcement critics who question how information is collected from the skies and how departments use that footage in their operations. But sheriffs and fire chiefs say the unmanned aircraft give them an extra set of eyes that can save lives.

“It will give us the opportunity to see the scene from five different sides, with the four we normally see on the ground and the one from above,” Pixley said.

The fire department hasn’t chosen a vendor, but the SkyRanger model sold to fire and police departments — specifically designed for the wear and tear of law enforcement usage — typically costs between $30,000 and $50,000, depending on features such as accessories and battery power, said Brad Young, marketing director for Aeryon.

While the Denver Fire Department is studying bids, it’s figuring out a policy for how a drone would be used, Pixley said. For example, the department does not yet know the length of time it will store the video footage collected by its drone, or how and when footage will be released to the public.

In Colorado, county sheriffs have been using drones since 2014, when Mesa County became the first to buy one, said Chris Johnson, executive director of County Sheriffs of Colorado. That drone almost immediately proved its value when it was used to take the first pictures of a mudslide that killed three people near the town of Collbran.

“I thought those were invaluable because they could get right in and do that,” Johnson said.

Since then, other sheriffs such as Joe Pelle in Boulder County and Tony Spurlock in Douglas County have adopted them, mostly for search-and-rescue operations. Some sheriffs also use them to aid in battling wildfires, Johnson said.

About 20 of Colorado’s more than 400 fire departments have purchased them, said Gary Briese, executive director of the Colorado Fire Chiefs Association. It’s cost prohibitive for every department to have one, he said, but it makes sense to deploy them across multiple jurisdictions.

“It’s extremely logical for urban departments to have them, logical for suburban departments, but when you move to the next ring out, that’s when you get into needing to share across jurisdictions,” Briese said.

Thus far, there has been little controversy over drones in Colorado, even though their usage in other states has been subject to criticism. In 2017, the Los Angeles Police Department’s decision to deploy a drone sparked protests from people who feared it would potentially violate constitutional rights that protect people from warrantless searches.

In addition to concerns about warrantless surveillance, some critics fear law enforcement eventually could deploy drones to fire ammunition at suspects like the military.

Denise Maes, public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado, has made multiple attempts to convince the state Legislature to pass a law regulating law enforcement use of drones, especially regulating their use for surveillance. Thus far, her efforts have failed, and the drone industry has lobbied heavily against it, she said.

“If it’s used for surveillance, it has to be used the same way as boots on the ground would be used,” she said. “Do you have a warrant? Do you have probable cause?”

Law enforcement is aware of the legal issues and follows the law, said Johnson, of the County Sheriffs of Colorado.

“Police don’t use them to peer into people’s windows,” he said. “People who commit crimes have more to fear from wiretaps than they do a drone, to be honest. Drones can’t see through roofs.”

©2018 The Denver Post Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.