Law Enforcement Looks to the Sky for Technological Advantage

Imagine a suspected drug dealer taking off on foot before investigators can get to him. A tracking dog gets on his scent but is about 10 minutes behind. By the time the dog leads officers to a hideout, the suspect already has gotten a ride and is gone.

That happened Thursday night in Clay County.

And if Clay County Sheriff Eddie Scott and West Point Police Chief Avery Cook have their way, they’ll join a small but growing number of emergency response agencies using technology to get an edge.

“This is just one more piece of technology out there we need to be using. We’re foolish not to. It’ll be one more piece of protection for the public,” Sheriff Eddie Scott said of the efforts to buy an unmanned aerial system — commonly known as a drone.

“We’ve got all kinds of potential uses. That search would be just one. If we’d had the drone, we might could have been out in front of the suspect, gotten a location or a car description or a tag number and been waiting for them,” the sheriff added.

The departments hope to apply to groups as diverse as Homeland Security and the 4-County Electric Foundation to help pay the $10,000 price tag for the drone and the cameras, infrared equipment, night gear and other devices.

The two agencies also may use seized drug funds to cover the costs to avoid asking taxpayers for money.

Initially, the departments would work with the fleet of pilots in Mississippi State University’s UAV program to get pilots for the drone. Eventually, deputies or officers would be certified to meet all Federal Aviation Administration standards to pilot the device.

MSU also will help the agencies get the necessary clearances from the FAA that now are required for law enforcement.

Searching for lost people, surveying storm damage, inspecting hazardous chemicals, surveillance on suspected drug houses, scouting out scenes before officers enter, checking crowds at events such as the Prairie Arts Festival, monitoring football games, aiding in water rescue are just a few of the potential uses, Scott mentioned.

“We’d also make it available to Oktibbeha or Lowndes counties, or Starkville or Columbus, the groups in our regional response teams,” the sheriff said. “The highway patrol has a chopper that flies out of Jackson but if there is weather or it is somewhere else or it is down for repairs, we’re out of luck. And our own drone would be much faster and more flexible. It wouldn’t have to come from Jackson and a drone can get on top of things better,” Scott explained.

“We just think it makes sense, especially when you’ve got rural areas like ours,” he added, stressing the drone would only be used for approved law enforcement purposes and not for spying on people.

Nationwide, an estimated 500 police and fire departments and sheriff’s departments have purchased drones in the last four years, most of those in the last two years.

The number is growing rapidly as their uses expand and now that federal regulations governing certification and piloting have been issued.

The Search and Rescue unit in neighboring Monroe County has three drones — two for daytime flying and one for night. Since the agency got the drones in the last two years, they’ve been used to help find a missing child in Tennessee and catch a domestic violence suspect on Christmas Eve a year ago.

Among the others that were the first in the state to get the devices were the Adams County Sheriff’s Department, Flowood Police Department, Calhoun County Emergency Management, and Gulfport Fire Department. Supervisors have authorized Scott to apply for grants and Selectmen are expected to follow suit with Scott. [Click for More]