Spring Hill PD First Local Williamson County Police Force to Buy a Drone

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Spring Hill Police Detective Geoff Betts demonstrates flying a drone on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017 in Spring Hill. The drone will be used during traffic accidents, HAZMAT accidents, and search and rescue cases. (Photo: Shelley Mays/The Tennessean ) Buy Photo

It sounds like a swarm of angry hornets up close, but a recent addition to the Spring Hill Police Department gives the force its own pair of wings.

The department purchased an unmanned aerial vehicle, known to most as a drone, this past spring, making it the first local police department in Williamson County to do so.

While the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office has helicopters and two drones in its fleet, the Spring Hill PD explored the benefits of buying its own drone at the encouragement of one of its own, Det. Geoff Betts.

“I’ve always had a fascination with drones,” Betts said. The department had discussed possibly buying one in the past, but it wasn’t until Betts purchased his own back in February and showed it to the force that the department realized how a drone could benefit public safety.

“That kind of did push it forward a lot quicker, by me already having one and knowing how to operate it,” said Betts, a 12-year veteran with the department.

Proving useful The department couldn’t officially begin using the drone it purchased this spring for $2,000 until last month, when the Spring Hill Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved its unmanned aircraft systems operations policy, which outlines restrictions on how the drone can be used.

Spring Hill Police Chief Don Brite says drones are catching on with law enforcement.

“Obviously, we can’t put a helicopter in our budget. So this is a tool that can provide that same aerial view at a small fraction of the expense,” Brite said.

It was first used last month to obtain aerial footage when the Spring Hill Fire Department held a controlled burn training for fire fighters on a vacant house on Duplex Road.

The Spring Hill Police’s drone captured images of a control burn by the Spring Hill Fire Dept of a home on Duplex Road. Photo submitted City of Spring Hill (Photo: City of Spring Hill)

That same day, it was needed for a more pressing matter when a suspicious package was reported near Home Depot.

“The information we were getting was that it was a possible bomb, so we set up a perimeter and brought the drone out,” Betts said. “It was able to fly within two feet of the object.”

The box turned out to contain drug paraphernalia, Betts said.

The drone has many uses, from helping other city departments monitor troublesome traffic intersections to missing person investigations.

“Throughout the year, we periodically have kids that go missing, and most of the time they’re found in the woods or in a field. Having a drone will help us be able to locate the child and get them home a lot quicker than just officers on foot,” Betts said.

What’s allowed — and what’s not? Betts stressed that the drone won’t be used to enforce traffic violations or for surveillance without a search warrant.

“If we have a search warrant, that means an officer can go to a location and have a legal right to be there based on the warrant. We can use the drone at that point,” Betts said. “But we’re not going to be going around looking at people’s backyards — that was not at all the reason why we decided to get the drone.”

Per the Federal Aviation Administration, the drone can’t be flown any higher than 400 feet and must stay within an officer’s line of sight at all times.

Since SHPD purchased the drone, Betts said he’s been contacted by at least five other police departments around the state inquiring about how to buy their own drones

“I tell them, ‘Look, I was in your same boat,'” Betts said. “I’m happy I can help them any way I can to get their drones up and running,” Betts said.

Neither the Franklin nor the Brentwood police departments have drones, and they don’t plan to buy any in the near future. Brentwood Assistant Police Chief Tommy Walsh said the force has access to the sheriff’s department drones, if necessary.

Metro Nashville Police Department has a drone, but hasn’t used it yet because it already has helicopters that provide aerial support, according to Metro police spokesman Don Aaron.

Reach Elaina Sauber at esauber@tennessean.com, 615-571-1172 or follow @ElainaSauber.

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