Drones giving cops a bird’s-eye view

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When Massachusetts State Police in New Salem tried yesterday to find a knife-wielding man who stabbed a trooper, they looked to the sky for help.

Drones are increasingly a part of the firefighting and crime-fighting arsenals at municipalities across the country. These unmanned aircraft are more nimble and versatile compared with a helicopter, which can cost upward of thousands of dollars to operate per hour.

“As of May 2018, there are at least 900 cities and states that have acquired a drone for public safety purposes,” said Dan Gettinger, co-director at the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.

“The public understands that we’re trying to get our job done and that the drones are used for good,” said Barnstable police Detective Kevin Connolly.

The Barnstable police acquired a $15,000 drone two years ago from a community group and have five operators. The drone is equipped with infrared technology that can detect heat signatures from hundreds of feet up. The department recently expanded its drone program and purchased another one for traffic accident reconstruction purposes.

“From a local police officer’s point of view, we are saving a lot of money, and more importantly, time that could be used towards getting the job done,” Connolly said.

Last year, Connolly said the department was able to track an armed man who fled a traffic stop and dove into a pond at night. “We were able to see this individual’s head sticking out, he said. “Within minutes, we were able to locate him and direct officers to his location.”

Drones are useful for search-and-rescue missions, finding lost individuals, tracking the spread of a fire — and even spotting sharks. “Departments along the Cape might find these drones useful to spot sharks in the water” along the beaches, Connolly said.

Connolly said there is a small patchwork to form a regional group of law enforcement drone operators, and legislation is being discussed at the state level.

When it comes to privacy laws, there are no federal regulations so far, said Mari Sakiyama, a criminal justice professor at Western Oregon University. “It’s happening on the local municipal level,” she said. States like Utah, Oregon and Texas already have specific laws in the books on what law enforcement agencies can and cannot do with drones.

Drones can provide a “unique aerial view” compared to helicopters, said Sakiyama. She published a study last year that looked into public perception of drones used in public safety applications. “Helicopters are too large and can’t descend down to lower altitudes where drones have a better advantage.”

“People concerned with public safety didn’t care how police utilize drones so long as they are to protect us,” said Sakiyama.

Civil liberties groups, however, say there is a fine line when it comes to how data is stored and implications on privacy.

“It’s great for fire departments to use drones for search-and-rescue operations, or for police to use them to reconstruct the scene of an accident,” said Kade Crockford of ACLU of Massachusetts. “We don’t want to live in a world where police can use drones to track people going about their daily lives, or use high-tech tracking tools like face surveillance from the sky.”

— jng@bostonherald.com

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