Mar 21, 2022 - News

Metro Atlanta police are using drones to respond to 911 calls

Brookhaven PD drone

Brookhaven police use drones to respond to 911 calls. Photo: Brookhaven Police Department

Law enforcement agencies around Atlanta are adding drones to the list of tools they use to respond to service calls. They say this technology gives officers more intel on what’s occurring on the ground.

What's happening: Departments interviewed by Axios use drones for 911 calls, active police investigations, SWAT situations, crowd monitoring and control at events, photographing accidents and search and rescue.

How it works: In late 2020, the city of Brookhaven introduced a program using drones to respond to 911 calls. Officers still respond to these calls, but the drones often arrive first, said police Lt. Abrem Ayana.

  • In one case, officers were dispatched to a call of a person brandishing a weapon and with the help of the drone, officers found the person loitering between two buildings and took him into custody.

Major Jeff Cantin with Atlanta police says during a SWAT call, officers can fly a drone into a building to talk to a person before sending in an armed team.

  • “I think this will help a lot with de-escalation because if you were in there, you're having a mental episode, you see a drone and you're talking to the drone, you're probably going to be a little more comfortable than with seven guys with full body armor, goggles on, and long guns charging at you,” he said.

In Sandy Springs, in addition to police department use, the city can request drones to take aerial photos of intersections for public works projects, Sgt. Sam Worsham tells Axios.

Its first drone, which was donated, was shot down during a SWAT operation by a suspect who barricaded himself inside an apartment.

  • “We’d rather lose a piece of equipment than lose an officer any day,” Worsham tells Axios.

The Cobb County Sheriff’s Office recently acquired its first drone to monitor large events, said spokesperson Jeremy Blake.

Of note: Not everyone can fly drones. Officers must undergo training and obtain a Federal Aviation Administration Remote Pilot Part 107 license before they can fly the aircraft.

Yes, but: The ACLU said if used improperly, drones equipped with facial recognition and speakers “capable of monitoring personal conversations would cause unprecedented invasions of our privacy rights.”

  • The Louisiana State Police drew criticism when it was unveiled it used drones to monitor protests following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin.
  • A Customs and Border Protection surveillance drone flew in a circle over Minneapolis in the days following Floyd’s murder.

The ACLU calls on police departments to only use drones when they have a warrant or during an emergency and only keep images when there’s a “reasonable suspicion” that they contain evidence.

The police departments Axios interviewed say they only use drones for active incidents — not to look for criminal activity or to view places where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The big picture: Incorporating technology into policing always raises questions about the role it will eventually play in everyday life.

  • Professor Dean Dabney, chair of the Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, said more departments are using drones because they are smaller, cheaper versions of helicopters and provide an easier way to get information they wouldn’t have access to otherwise.

With officers expected to do more in the face of tight budgets and fewer staff, Dabney says police can be tempted to over rely on technology.

  • “That mentality when used too much can of take the human element out of things,” he says. “While you can replace boots on the ground, is it really a good idea?”
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