Dallas police move to implement drones by 2019

Officials are hoping for the city’s support for operating the aircrafts before making budget decisions and fulfilling FAA requirements

By Dana Branham
The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS — The Dallas Police Department wants to use drones to help fight crime, but first, police want the City Council to back the aircraft.  

On Monday, police officials made their case for the systems to the city's Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee.

Police refer to them as “small unmanned aerial systems" rather than "drones," a word they say may remind people of weaponized aircrafts.

But the aircraft Dallas police want to use wouldn’t carry anything but a camera, and they wouldn’t go in the air without a specific mission, Assistant Chief Paul Stokes told the committee. 

Stokes said he understands that some people may be afraid of the aircraft, especially if they aren’t sure how police want to use them.

“People think that we're going to drop them in backyards and spy on them — that's not the purpose of this equipment,” he said. “We would never launch one of those systems just to patrol the city.”

With support from the city and enough funding, the department could be using the aircraft by early 2019, Stokes said. The department is hoping for a fleet of five: two for SWAT and three for patrol.

Dallas police don’t have any drones yet, but they had a chance to fly them during the National Rifle Association's national convention in May, when the Texas Department of Public Safety brought theirs in and let Dallas officers fly them to monitor crowds at the downtown convention center.

Other uses for the drones could include search-and-rescue situations — if a car is swept away in high water, police could deploy one to fly directly up to the window of the car and see whether someone is inside. They could also help track down a suspect or a missing person.

Law enforcement agencies, including the Arlington Police Department, have been using drones for years. Other agencies using them include the Mansfield Police Department, the Houston Fire Department and the Las Vegas Metro Police Department.

In September, Carrollton police used a drone outfitted with a camera to find the bodies of a man and woman killed in a murder-suicide before officers entered the home.

Dallas City Council member Sandy Greyson, who represents Far North Dallas, said she thought the drones’ surveillance capabilities could be particularly helpful if they were stationed along Dowdy Ferry Road — a street notorious for being a dumping ground for dogs both dead and alive.

“Right now they don't last long enough and they're costly enough that that wouldn't be a good application for it,” Greyson said. “But someday, when the cost comes down and we have a lot more of them, that could be something that we could use.”

Stokes said the price for the department's preferred aerial systems range from $7,500 to more than $30,000. The low-cost models work in daytime and low-light settings. The mid-range aircraft, with thermal imaging technology, cost between $10,000 and $15,000. The most expensive, highest-tech versions specifically designed for law enforcement use, can cost more than $30,000.

Costs are coming down, Stokes said. But council member Kevin Felder, who represents southern Dallas, said he thought the drones are still pricey for their lifespans — about 400 hours in the air, according to the briefing police gave to the committee.

Limited battery life means the aircraft could be flown for 25 to 35 minutes without a battery change, Stokes said. That’s just one reason why they couldn’t replace police helicopters, he said.

For now, police just want the city’s support for operating the aircrafts — budget decisions will come later, along with the technicalities of getting a license from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly in Dallas.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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