The Jackson County Sheriff’s Department recently added the latest technology to its arsenal of crime-fighting tools, and it could be a game changer in more ways than one.
But before that can happen, department personnel will have to complete training and get waivers to use two drones purchased in the fall.
The drones will be used in a variety of situations, including the pursuit of people fleeing officers and accident reconstruction, Sheriff Mike Carothers said.
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They also can be used to help find a missing person.
There isn’t a timetable yet when the department can begin using it in situations. The Federal Aviation Administration regulates drones and their use.
“We have to get the training in,” Carothers said, adding he would like six or more officers trained to use them. “Really, anyone in the whole department that shows interest, we’ll get them trained.”
Waivers are needed for flying over crowds, within restricted airspace, at night, more than 400 feet in the air and out of line of sight. The FAA issues those waivers.
The department ordered one less-expensive drone for training purposes and for smaller accident reconstruction. The cost was around $900.
The larger drone, a Matrice 210, is equipped with an abundance of tools and gadgets the department will use in nearly any situation. It had a cost of around $17,000.
That cost is significantly lower than it would have been in recent years, Carothers said.
“If we would have done this a few years ago, it probably would have been $50,000,” he said.
Taxpayer money was not used to purchase the drones. They were funded through commissary accounts at the jail.
Commissary funds are raised from inmates who pay for phone calls, extra food and other items and services. The department typically uses the funds to replace things like flat-screen televisions and other technology needed at the jail. The Indiana State Board of Accounts audits those funds and their usage.
The larger drone includes a camera, a zoom camera and infrared imaging. Carothers said the infrared camera was $6,000 alone but will be one of the more useful features. Infrared imaging uses heat sources to find people.
The Matrice is able to withstand any weather condition, too, he said.
It is equipped with a tracking system that will allow it to secure a target, such as a person or a car, and follow it without police controlling it. When it runs low on battery, it will return to the controller, allow police to change a fresh set of batteries and remember its target.
“It will fly wherever its target is without anyone holding the controller — hands-free,” Carothers said.
The drone is equipped with features to prevent it from crashing even if an officer is controlling it to move forward.
“I call it idiot-proof,” he said with a laugh.
The small one will be used for accident reconstruction where it will fly above the scene for photos and video, giving police a new perspective of crashes. This past year, county officers investigated 728 accidents, including two with fatalities.
“You get a whole different three-dimension of it compared to what we had before of ground video or ground shots,” Carothers said. “That’s a big use for it.”
Carothers said the department’s drones would be available to other departments in the area if they’re needed.
“If another county or Brownstown, Seymour or Salem needs it, we’ll go help them and be happy to do it,” he said.
During a test last week, county detectives Tom Barker and Ben Rudolph — along with help from jail officer Andrew Prajzner — demonstrated the Matrice 210 outside the sheriff’s department on the east side of Brownstown.
Within minutes, the drone was assembled and up in the air, zipping through the sky near the department at the push of a control. It also hovered over before slowly descended on its landing.
“It’s pretty cool,” Barker said as he was operating it.
Barker has been tasked with keeping the drone updated and is spearheading the project.
The remote control has more than 20 buttons to operate it and is equipped with a monitor to view what the drone can see from its position. The cameras can be rotated, too, and the monitor can record photographs and video.
Changing between regular imaging and infrared happens with the push of a button.
Carothers said the drone would have been useful in about six incidents in 2017.
One was when a Jefferson County man stole a Crothersville police cruiser in December.
That man hid from police in a wooded area overnight and was found in handcuffs 12 hours later.
Infrared imaging would have been helpful in finding him, Carothers said.
There also was an incident where a man fled police last July and the department had to call the Indiana State Police helicopter.
He said the drone would have been a more effective tool for the department in that situation.
Carothers said it took the state police about an hour or so to respond to the call, and the helicopter could not fly long without refueling.
“He was in a small wooded area, we had him surrounded and we knew he couldn’t get out,” he said. “When the chopper got here, they made two passes around the woods and had to refuel.”
The helicopter had to refuel in Columbus and came back for another round before the department was told it had to leave.
“We pushed through the woods and did it the hard way,” Carothers said.
More and more departments are beginning to use drones, Carothers said, and research from a university in New York shows the increase.
Dan Gettinger, co-director at the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, tracks drone usage for hobbyists and non-hobbyists.
Gettinger said there is no public database for drone usage in law enforcement, but the center’s research showed an estimated 347 police departments acquired drones in 2016.
Gettinger and staff use a variety of methods to count and track drone usage in law enforcement. The center searches FAA registrations, waivers, permits and also local news stories to compile figures. The number does not include departments that have relied on help from citizens that used personal drones to assist police.
Eleven departments in Indiana had acquired drones by 2016, and that’s a number Gettinger said has probably doubled since the report was released in April 2017.
“Every week, there are new departments acquiring drones,” he said. “This is a fast-growing sector of the drone industry, and we expect it to grow further.”
Carothers said the drones will be a huge asset to the department for years to come.
“I think they’re going to be great tools,” he said.