Colorado To Deploy Drones for 911 Calls

Drone over highway
Done over highway | Image by Davizro Photography/Shutterstock

Nearly two dozen police agencies in Colorado will begin using unmanned aerial systems for a unique purpose: responding to 911 calls to determine whether officers should be deployed.

Numerous police departments nationwide frequently use unmanned aerial systems (drones) for operations that include search and rescue and tracking fleeing suspects. Drones are also used in hostage situations and for crowd control.

“This really is the future of law enforcement at some point, whether we like it or not,” Sgt. Jeremiah Gates, who leads the drone unit at the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO), told The Denver Post.

ACSO currently uses drones to conduct searches and surveillance, map crime and crash scenes, and track suspects. However, the department is now considering using drones for 911 response. Drones would arrive ahead of officers and provide a live video feed of what is happening at the scene of an emergency. Drone operators would then be able to determine what type of response, if any, is needed from officers.

“I could fly the drone over [a reported suspicious vehicle] and say, ‘Hey, that vehicle is not out of place,’ and I never had to send an officer over to bother them, and I can clear it with that,” Gates said, per The Denver Post. “It’s saving resources.”

Gates also explained to the news outlet how aerial surveillance can help save lives.

“What if we get a call about someone with a gun, and the drone is able to get overhead and see it’s not a gun before law enforcement ever contacts them?” he said.

The new approach to drone technology by law enforcement in Colorado is far from the first of its kind. Police in Chula Vista, California, a town that borders Mexico, have used drones for response decisions since 2018. The Marshall Project reported last July that the Chula Vista Police Department had deployed drones to assess 911 calls more than 16,000 times. The devices have allowed a response time of two minutes versus about 20 minutes for a traditional police officer.

However, using the technology is not without its risks and detractors.

“We’re worried about what it would mean if drones were really just all over the skies in Colorado,” American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado staff attorney Laura Moraff said, according to The Denver Post. “We are worried about what that would mean for First Amendment activities, for speech and organizing and protesting — because being surveilled by law enforcement, including by drones, can change the way people speak and protest.”

Dallas is no stranger to law enforcement deploying drones. The Dallas Police Department has explicitly authorized the use of lethal force by aerial drones when approved by the police chief. While drones have yet to be used in this capacity, DPD did use a ground-based robot to kill a mass shooter in 2016.

While the weaponization of drones poses serious questions about government overreach, the use of load-carrying drones could also present life-saving tactics that could be employed by law enforcement and other first responders.

“Having the ability to deliver life-saving equipment and critical resources is something that I believe will be a valuable capability. … The first steps of this program are about implementing the technology into these dynamic situations as efficiently as possible,” said DPD Sgt. Ross Stinson, in a 2022 interview, reported the drone industry outlet UAV.

While the use of drones by police could provide many benefits, it also raises novel and complicated legal issues. Most police forces cannot use drones for surveillance without a warrant, including in Texas, where warrantless surveillance of private citizens and their property is specifically banned, as reported by The Dallas Express.

Police implementation of drones has raised privacy and public safety concerns, especially after more than 600 hours of aerial surveillance footage taken by the DPD from helicopters leaked in 2021, as reported by DX.

The footage contained recordings of crowds at the State Fair of Texas in Fair Park as well as scenes from protests that occurred in the City. Additional analysis of the leak revealed that “large sections of the video show random surveillance of Dallas neighborhoods, with highly detailed and zoomed-in images of people in their front yards, standing by their cars and sunbathing.”

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