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Why drones may be the next big thing in fighting rural crime

Small agencies can always benefit from an extra set of eyes – especially when they are in the sky


Drones can create advantages for small departments by helping them document crime and accident scenes, provide extra eyes on standoffs and barricades, and of course, with search and rescue.

Al Amrhein

Big city cops get cool technology; rural cops get left behind. That’s the stereotype that’s being upended as one small department after another adopts drone technology to fill the gaps they face every day in fighting crime and saving lives.

The little aircraft are versatile, comparatively inexpensive and widely available. Anyone with access to the internet or a big box store can buy a starter version. Anyone who can play a video game can learn to use one.

Their very ubiquity also means that rural law enforcement are increasingly encountering drones as vehicles for criminal activity. Criminals, famously creative (if not critical) thinkers, have been using drones for years.

Criminal drone activity

On the southern border – where thousands of miles of sparsely populated country are thinly patrolled by local and federal officers – narcodrones flit below radar to drop payloads of smuggled heroin protected by bubblewrap. Cartels and traffickers use them for surveillance, finding gaps in barriers and pauses in patrols by border agents.

In California’s vast farmlands, professional thieves use drones to case fields and barnyards.

Agricultural theft is rarely reported in large news outlets, but it is high-dollar, low-risk crime. Stealing tools, heavy equipment or even bees (yes, bees) yields a big return on merchandise that’s easy to resell and hard to trace, with little of the drama that comes with robbing a bank or gun store. When investigators with the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force realized that drones were the key to locating stuff to steal, they were able to advise farmers and ranchers on better ways to secure their valuables.

Rural territories are where we put prisons, and power infrastructure: all those necessities that take up too much space for urban settings, or are just too ugly for urban eyeballs to tolerate. Bad guys and their drones seize those opportunities as well, not just in the U.S. but also in France and Canada.They drop contraband, from drugs to cell phones, right inside prison yards, evading security systems, keeping crime bosses on the inside in control of the outside, and endangering corrections personnel. In Pennsylvania, a drone crashed before managing to complete its mission to damage an electrical substation. The operator was never identified.

Rural crime committed using drones is becoming common in rural places overseas as well. In the UK, thieves have flown them above farmland to find cannabis farms to rob, locating them by the grow lights shining at night. In Australia, they’re a favorite of livestock thieves: aerial rustling reconnaissance.

Reclaiming the skies

It’s time that rural officers reclaimed their skies, and according to Sean Smith, president of the South Carolina Public Safety Drone Pilot Association, they are. The association organized as a nonprofit in 2020. It grew out of a relationship with Chula Vista Police Department in California, a pioneer in innovative use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

According to Smith, rural sheriffs have a growing interest in drone programs for the simple reason that few have access to helicopters. The SC Public Safety DPA is positioned to meet the needs of these rural officers, as it is certified through the state’s criminal justice academy, so drone pilot training through their program also counts toward required continuing education hours.

“Our association has trained more than 100 personnel as public safety drone pilots,” Smith said. “More of them in law enforcement, but also some firefighters and emergency managers. The initial class begins with the history of aircraft usage going back to balloons in the 1800s, and continues on to operations basics, confined spaces (like clearing building interiors), search and rescue uses, and overwatch. The real point is to prevent officers from getting hurt in dangerous situations, like searching an attic.” (The attic search example is a valid hazard. A Massachusetts officer was killed and his K-9 partner seriously wounded doing exactly that just a few years ago.)

Smith, a retired Army veteran and SC Criminal Justice Academy chaplain, says that he has trained officers from 21 years to 77 years old to operate drones. Young people don’t necessarily have an advantage, but the technology is a definite draw for younger officers and may work favorably toward recruiting and retention.

How drones benefit small police departments

Drones can create advantages for small departments by helping them document crime and accident scenes, provide extra eyes on standoffs and barricades, and of course, with search and rescue. Texas Game Wardens have a donation-funded drone program that has solved dozens of crimes and manhunts, and aided in dozens more rescues and disasters.

Smith considers any cost well worth the expense, and there are many ways to fund a small department’s drone program: grants, donations, asset forfeitures and dedicated funding streams from citations or fees, just to name a few.

“There are drones under $200,” Smith said. “There are purpose-built drones, but they’re very expensive. You don’t have to start there. A small commercial drone for a few hundred dollars may be just fine to start off. The average flight time for a commercial drone is maybe 30 minutes, up to 45. The solution for a small budget isn’t necessarily a more expensive drone but just carrying more batteries. Those you may add on for less than $50 each. Adding things like night vision can really spike the price, but in the end it comes down to, what is your officer’s life worth? It’s not enough to just say ‘We support you.’”

For that matter, what is a citizen’s life worth? Smith told me of a recent rescue of a lost, ill and elderly man. The at-risk gentleman was frail and had been exposed to the elements for hours, but was found quickly when an off-duty officer, licensed as a drone operator, responded to the scene. The search party had set off in the wrong direction. Getting eyes above the scene corrected their course in time to rescue the wandering senior, and return him safely home.

“It’s a 21st century device, and we’re in the 21st century,” Smith said. “A small department can have its own airfleet for a few hundred dollars.We’ll see that over the next 10 years. I believe the future is a drone in each patrol car.”

DOWNLOAD: How to buy police drones

Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She’s had a front-row seat observing rural agencies – local, state and federal – from the Sierra foothills to California’s notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.