Colorado Police Says Drones Set to Be Used as First Responders

The drone copter flying with digital camera.

Law enforcement agencies in Colorado’s Front Range are increasingly using drones as first responders, dispatching them to respond to 911 calls. 

At least twenty different agencies in the Front Range already use drone technology to search for missing individuals, trace the whereabouts of fleeing criminals, conduct aerial surveillance during SWAT missions, and map crime scenes.

A new policy being considered by the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office involves using twenty drones in lieu of or in addition to human responders to specific 911 calls.

Responding cops might get immediate, in-depth information about an occurrence by having a remote-controlled drone flown to the scene of the crime and transmit live footage back to its operator. Alternatively, if the operator of the drone can ascertain from above that police are unnecessary to attend to the 911 call, then the drone may be the only response. 

Legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Colorado, Laura Moraff, is concerned about this new but rapidly expanding pattern in police.

For higher-priority situations, dispatching drones ahead of deputies might ensure everyone’s safety because they usually arrive on-site faster than cops. When sent in response to a 911 call, drones might show the exact position of a suicidal person, aid in a foot pursuit, or capture live footage of a criminal breaking into a residence. 

Sgt. Bryan Bartnes, who oversees the Loveland police department’s drone program, has speculated that a drone may be able to provide an AED to a patient a few minutes before emergency personnel reaches the scene.

Similar to the legislation governing the release of public records and the retention of footage from cops’ body-worn cameras, the city makes available maps of its drone flights that include the time, location, and nature of the call that the drones responded to. A Technology & Privacy Task Force is also crucial in directing the city’s drone operations.

Moraff expresses concern that police departments should be open and honest with the public about their drone policies and practices and take into consideration local opinions when implementing a drone program. As drones become more commonplace, her biggest concern is that police forces would employ them within predetermined limits before covertly increasing their usage beyond what is lawful or appropriate.