Police drones pit safety vs. privacy concerns in Michigan
A growing number of Michigan police agencies are employing drones to provide a bird’s-eye view of accident and crime scenes, speed searches for missing persons and help find fugitives.
This summer, the Macomb County Sheriff's Office began an unmanned aerial vehicle program, following the Michigan State Police and the Oakland County Sheriff's Office, which began using drones several years ago, as well as the Farmington Hills Police Department, which started deploying drones last year.
Law enforcement officials say the devices allow them to search areas faster and allow police to monitor fire, accident or crime scenes where it may not be possible or safe for officers to go. They also say they're mindful of privacy concerns.
The Macomb County program took flight in June with four drones. One of the devices, a DJI Matrice 210, is outfitted with dual cameras and thermal imaging capabilities.
Deputy Michael Dixon, who is in charge of the new program, said drones help with searches for missing persons, traffic crash investigations and crime scene coverage. In the past, officers have had to call in a fire truck and use the ladder to get an overhead view of a crime scene, he said.
"It’s a tool that’s helping us be more efficient with our jobs," he said. "It's been very welcomed and very useful."
Chesterfield Township, for example, used one of the sheriff's drones to help search for a missing teenager in June.
Unfortunately, the 15-year-old boy was found dead, in a case authorities say wasn't suspicious, but Chesterfield Township police Sgt. Deron Myers said the drone proved its value during the search.
It "eliminated a ton of area in a pretty short amount of time," Myers said. "It can cover such an expanse, such a large area with a better vantage point. They were diligently up there as long as that thing had power."
Dixon said the drone logged four to five hours of flight time over three days during the search, covering a radius of about 35 miles.
Even before Macomb County's program officially started, sheriff's deputies used a drone last winter when a fisherman fell through ice while riding his ATV onLake St. Clair.
"He got disoriented due to the heavy fog," Dixon said. "He was driving and went through the ice. He was able to get out of the water. When he got to shore, he called."
Dixon said the department decided to launch one of its drones to search for his vehicle. "We were able to see the two tracks of a four-wheeler leading to where the ice shattered," he said. "There were no more tracks. You would never see that if you were out there on foot."
The sheriff's office has two licensed drone pilots, including Dixon, and 14 more deputies have been trained and are waiting to take the Federal Aviation Administration's certification test.
There is no mandatory preparation for drone operators, but Dixon said police agencies often hold a one- or two-day training session for officers planning to take the written FAA exam. After that, departments usually do hands-on training with their officers, led either by department members or private organizations.
The rules of the air
For departments with certification under the FAA's Part 107 regulations, drone pilots must follow a variety of requirements, most of which are "common sense," Dixon said.
The main regulations state that officers may not fly the drones 400 feet above the ground, the device must weigh under 55 pounds, the drone must remain in the pilot's visual line-of-sight, they cannot fly at night, they cannot fly faster than 100 mph and they cannot fly directly over people.
Dixon had the idea to begin Macomb County's program when he spoke to a professional photographer who was flying his drone to film a marathon in Mount Clemens.
"I was looking at the drone, and the wheels started turning about how many benefits this would have," he said. "As I was looking at this, the sheriff happened to walk by, and I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if our department had some of those?’ Next thing I know, the ball started rolling."
Macomb County used forfeiture funds to buy its four drones and related equipment, which cost $26,053, Dixon said.
Other agencies that use drones say the devices have proven their worth during emergencies.
The Farmington Hills Police have been using two drones since 2017, according to Sgt. Doug Muller.
During flooding this spring, Farmington Hills police used one of the department's two drones to check on a car that was stuck on Halsted Road near 14 Mile, said Sgt. Doug Muller. Luckily, no one was inside.
Police also used a drone as part of their response to a barricaded gunman.
"We wanted to put the drone up to see the layout of the house and the surrounding area," Muller said. "We set up a perimeter around the home ...two minutes after the drone went up, the guy came out the back."
Sgt. Matt Rogers, who oversees the Michigan State Police's drone program, which began in February 2015, said the aircraft were deployed when a trooper was shot and wounded last month in Missaukee County, just south of Lake City.
"All the evidence, we were able to photograph it. We created a map that had the entire scene," Rogers said. "Historically, you wouldn’t have an image that covered the entire scene."
In August 2016, Michigan troopers needed just 15 minutes to find a fugitive from Indiana in a cornfield, thanks to a drone's thermal imaging camera, Rogers said.
"It was much quicker than having boots on the ground search for him," he said. "We were able to locate him much faster."
Watching the watchers
But the technology carries with it some privacy concerns, said Kimberly Buddin, policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. Buddin said the ACLU hasn't received any specific complaints about police use of drones but is monitoring the issue.
"They have to have some pretty strict restrictions," she said. "We can always strengthen the limitations we have."
Rogers said police are taking the necessary steps to ensure privacy is protected.
"We aren’t using them for surveillance without a search warrant," he said. "We don't want to create bad case law that negatively affects this technology because it’s so helpful for us."
Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, whose program has been operating since 2013, believes some fears come from a misconception that UAVs used by the police are the same thing as military strike drones.
"For us, our helicopter is much better suited to almost any mission except for when it is unsafe for manned aircraft," Bouchard said. "It isn’t a situation where people are sunbathing in their backyard. (UAVs) are not routinely or randomly deployed; they’re almost never deployed."
Dixon said he has conducted more than 75 flights without receiving any privacy complaints but is ready to adjust how the aircraft are used if necessary.
"The drones are so new to law enforcement, I think the laws and requirements are going to be ever-evolving," he said.