Sometimes an eye in the sky can outperform boots on the ground.
On June 19, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office was informed that a woman with a possible medical issue was wandering around the densely wooded Ferndale Preserve near Montverde. Deputy Scott O’Neil launched a drone over the area and within a few minutes, discovered the woman, who was found to be in good health.
Drones are a fairly recent addition to the Lake and Sumter sheriff’s offices. Lake County began its drone program about a year ago as an outgrowth of its SWAT team. Sumter County’s program began early this year. Law enforcement agencies across the country have begun to use drones. According to a study by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, more than 1,500 law enforcement agencies across the country own drones. Florida is one of the leaders nationally, with 71 departments owning drones.
Drones make sense for a lot of law enforcement agencies. They can be readily available, are cost-effective and can do things that other devices, even helicopters, can’t. Still, there is a learning curve. Those who pilot the drones must be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and the course can take from weeks to months to complete.
The Sumter County Sheriff’s Office currently has three pilots, with one more on the verge of getting their license. The department has one drone, so the pilots pass it among themselves at shift change.
Deputy Arnold Davis was the first drone pilot for the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office. He started a program while working as a police officer in Brooksville because he liked flying radio-controlled airplanes and asked his chief to get a drone. Since Davis already was certified, he was a logical choice to be the Sumter County department’s first pilot when its drone program was launched.
Davis said flying a drone is easier than an RC plane because if you let go of the control stick, the drone will hover, while a plane will crash.
“It’s fun, depending on what you’re looking for,” he said.
Lake County’s department has five pilots so far, with 12 more preparing to take the exam. Right now, the department has six drones. The department’s goal is to have a drone and pilot in each sector — north, central and south — of the county, according to Lt. Michael Bond, who runs the drone program.
The incident of the missing woman was kind of a coming-out party for the Lake County’s drone.
“It was such a large area to cover, but within five to seven minutes, we were able to locate the individual,” Bond said. “Time wise, it really helped out tremendously.”
Finding a missing person can put drones in the spotlight, but more often they’re used for day-to-day police work. Agencies can use them to track suspects or even to take a peek into a house in which a suspect might be barricaded. They also have proven useful in monitoring crowds in large events.
“We can do a lot in a small package, which is good,” Bond said.
Cpt. Jon Galvin, who leads the Law Enforcement Bureau for the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office and is in charge of the agency’s drone program, said his department uses drones in the case of high-risk search warrants, standoffs and fleeing suspects. Using the drone can save taxpayers a lot of money.
“Anytime we use the drone instead of the helicopter it saves $400 an hour,” Galvin said.
Bond also pointed out the savings his department realized in the search for the missing woman. Without the drone, they might have activated the department’s helicopter, four-wheelers and certainly more deputies.
Sumter County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Chris Haworth said his department wanted to get into drones gradually to see if they made sense, both from a law enforcement perspective and financially. So far, they’ve been a valuable resource.
“We’re looking at beefing up the program,” he said.
Some things the department is considering, Haworth said, are enhanced infrared capabilities and a system that would match up with geolocation watches to help track seniors who may have gotten lost. Lake County is looking at a similar path.
“Eventually, we’re looking to expand,” Bond said. “We’re in the infancy of this program. We want to do it right.”
Larger drones and better nighttime capability are some of the things Bond is looking at as Lake County’s drone program expands. Privacy concerns can be an issue with drone use.
Departments generally need a warrant to use drones to search a house, but they can be used to establish the presence of an individual within a house, for instance in the case of a barricaded suspect.
“We don’t want to infringe on anyone’s privacy,” Bond said.
On the whole, drones have so far proven themselves as good for law enforcement.
“It’s another tool in our toolbox and it makes our jobs more efficient and safer for the public,” Galvin said.
Senior writer Steve Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5228, or firstname.lastname@example.org.