Eyes in the sky: Drones take larger role at Fla. sheriff's office

Drones are becoming a key tool for the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office in documenting crime scenes, finding missing people and assisting with routine problems


By Sheldon Gardner
The St. Augustine Record, Fla.

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. — Drones are becoming a key tool for the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office in documenting crime scenes, finding missing people and assisting with routine problems.

This week, Deputy Ernest Edwards, who patrols northwest St. Johns County, used a drone to help track down a missing student.

Officials knew the child might be in a treehouse in a general area, so they used a drone to search for him, Edwards said.

"Just hovering around, we saw the treehouse," said Edwards, who responds to other parts of the county to fly his drone if needed.

The Sheriff's Office started using drone technology about a year and a half ago. Now the office has a fleet of eight drones, which are helping save time and resources, officials said.

They cost about $2,000 apiece, Sheriff's Office spokesman Chuck Mulligan said.

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The drones are used in forensics, the marine unit, major crimes, evidence and SWAT, and one on patrol with Edwards, said Chief Perry Hagaman, who is in charge of the Sheriff's Office air and marine operations.

Drones are used to help document crime scenes, including in difficult-to-access places.

"We had a body that was out of one of the transient camps ... (We) couldn't get back there with most modern equipment," Hagaman said. "It was a very densely wooded area. But we could get the drone through the trees to take pictures of the crime scene."

There are a wide range of possibilities for how drones can be used.

The Sheriff's Office used a drone to survey the scene at a recent protest outside of Flagler College, and in August a drone helped in the arrest of a fugitive from Maryland who was wanted on charges that included attempted murder.

In that case, authorities surrounded the St. Johns County home and launched a drone. The man left the house after hearing the drone, and authorities arrested him.

Drones are also used to survey areas before and after a storm, Ernest said.

"It's brilliant for disaster relief," he said.

The drones are also helpful in traffic wrecks, allowing deputies to survey a scene quickly and report back about what kind of help is needed, Edwards said.

"We had an overturned tractor that caused a major crash ... We were able to get the drone in the air prior to fire rescue coming," Edwards said.

Using a drone is less expensive than calling out a helicopter or other resources that might be needed, Hagaman said. It also allows for quick response time.

If officials are on call and on site, a helicopter can travel to any destination in the county in 12-15 minutes, Hagaman said.

Authorities can get a drone up in the air within a couple of minutes.

The drones are equipped with the ability to take photos and video. A speaker can be attached to the drones to allow the Sheriff's Office to communicate with someone ― like communicating with a barricaded suspect or someone found in the woods.

"We can lower the drone down and have a conversation with you," Mulligan said.

They can be programmed to search a certain pattern, and they have day and night vision.

All drone operators have a license with the Federal Aviation Administration.

As for privacy concerns, the drones can't see through walls and can't be used in a way that violates constitutional rights ― so, for example, the Sheriff's Office wouldn't use a drone to look inside of someone's vehicle without permission, Hagaman said.

The Sheriff's Office plans to expand the drone program.

"The long-term plan is to put them in each district," Hagaman said.

(c)2020 The St. Augustine Record, Fla.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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