The Brookhaven Police Department is launching itself into a new world of drone policing, with the aerial robots set to respond to 911 calls in a program officials say will save time and money. But that also means flying into uncharted territory of legal and ethical implications, as experts say there are no national standards for police drones.

The department has purchased four drones and plans to begin using them to respond to calls in early 2021. According to Brookhaven Lt. Abrem Ayana, it’s the first full-throttle drone response program of its kind outside the state of California.

“It is truly transformational,” said Ayana, who oversaw implementation of the drone team. “We expect it to be very busy.”

Ayana sees the flying devices as the next wave in law enforcement and envisions it as groundbreaking in Brookhaven. After BPD announced their plans in an Oct. 28 press release,he said he was flooded with calls and emails from dozens of departments around the country wanting to know more.

“Most agencies right now are looking at it,” he said. “How do we do it, how do we staff it, and things of that sort. I think there are a lot of folks just watching, seeing how it gets navigated.”

The Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C., estimated in a recent report that there are thousands of law enforcement drones surveilling from above, yet there is no national standard to govern how police agencies deploy the aerial units. The report said clear exemptions and privacy boundaries are necessary to prevent agencies from abusing the power of drones.

“There’s one thing civil liberties advocates and privacy specialists tend to agree upon: Police drones aren’t regulated nearly strictly enough, and the majority of U.S. states still don’t have comprehensive rules on the books governing their use,” the Brookings report said. “… In the absence of clear rules or guidelines, police drone use will almost inevitably expand to fit every void. And as police find new ways to use drones, regulations are required to justify their expanded use.”

While Brookhaven police may be the first agency in Georgia to use drones as first responders, the remotely controlled aircrafts already have a presence in local law enforcement for more limited uses. On Oct. 16, SWAT officers from the Atlanta Police Department flew a drone into the apartment of a 30-year-old man and used it to arrest him for the Oct. 3 murder of Hollywood actor Thomas Jefferson Byrd.

Meanwhile, the Sandy Springs Police Department has used drones for years and currently has an arsenal of four. Similar to Atlanta, Sandy Springs Sgt. Sam Worsham said their SWAT team uses the devices to clear homes on search and seizure calls. One of the recent advents for Sandy Springs’ drone program is mapping software that the traffic unit uses to reconstruct scenes of fatal wrecks. However, the department doesn’t regularly dispatch the drones on calls.

“We don’t have it as a full-time position,” Worsham said. “It’s just sort of we use it as a tool to help us if we need aerial shots.”

Brookhaven’s drone unit will entail a team of 12 to 15 officers. All of the officers will undergo training to learn their new roles. Those assigned to remotely pilot the drones need to be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA regulates rules-of-the-road operations like the altitudes and times of day and at which drones can fly.

The pilots will stand on rooftops to maintain a line of sight on the drones, keeping a watchful eye of the surrounding airspace when they take to the skies. Meanwhile, officers trained as teleoperators will control the drones’ camera functions, which are equipped to home in on suspects from long ranges.

The two-person teams can provide real-time information to ground units responding to the calls.

“So instead of patrol officers literally going street to street to street, playing hide-and-seek with suspects,” Ayana said, “we can fly our drones over in a pattern, and just search all of that neighborhood area, clearing it in a fraction of the time that our ground units would be able to.”

The largest of the four drones will be equipped with an LED gimbal spotlight and, besides a regular camera, a thermal imaging infrared camera for night vision. A second drone outfitted for night vision will also be capable of flying with a spotlight and a public address system so pilots can communicate with people in the field. Some of the drones will be equipped with Faro scanners, allowing officers to take 3D photos to reconstruct crashes.

Ayana said the infrared cameras can’t penetrate glass and the drones won’t be used for patrols. The department said it will add measures to its policy to prohibit drone pilots from recording in backyards, private buildings, homes or anywhere a person has reasonable privacy expectations.

“These drones will specifically respond to a 911 call,” Ayana said. “So if somebody calls 911, or an officer spots suspicious activity and the person conceals themselves or something, we will send a drone. But it’s not one of those where we say, ‘Hey, let’s just go send a drone and start flying around neighborhoods and looking in backyards.’ It’s not going to do that.”

A California model

The unmanned aircrafts will give an overhead view and can help clear crime scenes as well as the interior of buildings. Department officials say that will provide critical and reliable real-time intel to keep officers safe even before they arrive on scene.

In addition to crime calls, the drones can be deployed on searches for missing persons, fleeing suspects and crashes.

The Brookhaven Police Department began researching new ways to respond to calls at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. One reason was a rash of vehicle break-ins overnight were going unsolved. Patrol officers weren’t able to get to the scene quickly enough to nab the bandits who were escaping under the guise of nightfall.

The coronavirus posed an even bigger threat and the agency was looking to limit officers’ exposure when possible.

Ayana led a team that for three months studied the Chula Vista Police Department’s drone response program, which launched in 2018. The Southern California agency is credited as the first agency in the U.S. to start sending the devices on 911 calls.

Last year, drones in Chula Vista cleared 229 police calls quickly enough that a patrol unit never had to be dispatched.

In July, the agency became the first in the nation to receive a special clearance from FAA, allowing officers to fly the drones beyond line-of-sight.

Brookhaven modeled its program after the one in Chula Vista, which has responded to at least 2,300 calls this year and assisted in 278 arrests.

Ayana expects Brookhaven’s shipment of drones to land at precinct headquarters by Dec. 1. Once the drones arrive, the department will organize its training regiment. Ayana hopes to have the devices operational and responding to 911 calls by mid January.

The agency has signed a five-year contract with Motorola for an aerial software suite that will manage the drone fleet, providing live video streams to the pilots. Responding officers and field commanders will be able to watch the live feeds on their cell phones, iPad or desktops.

The department will handle all video recorded by the drones in the same way body camera evidence is currently stored. That means some footage will be subject to public access via the state Open Records Act. Under current city policy, video footage of arrests is preserved for five years.

Costs and safety

The four drones are a combined $37,000 and training, start-up, software and FAA licensing costs will be another $50,000. The running cost to maintain the program each year will be a shade less than $23,000.

Nevertheless, drones are a seen as a cost-prohibitive wave of law enforcement. They are far less expensive than traditional helicopters, which cost millions of dollars. Police choppers usually serve entire regions because most agencies, like the Brookhaven Police Department, aren’t able to afford them.

Brookhaven currently relies on DeKalb County Police and the Georgia State Patrol Aviation Unit when in need of a helicopter. It often takes 30 minutes to an hour for the rotorcrafts to arrive depending on where they are responding from — and that’s only if they’re up and running at the time.

The average response time for drones is 90 seconds, according to department officials.

“Drones are out there,” Brookhaven Police Chief Gary Yandura said.

“Almost every department has them right now. But ours, being that the drone will actually respond on calls for service that we get, they’ll usually be the eyes and ears for officers and that’s great. It’s going to be safer for the citizens and the officers.”

Ayana cited studies that indicate drone response costs one-tenth the expense of dispatching an officer and vehicle.

Brookhaven City Council approved the program during an Oct. 27 meeting, dedicating federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act dollars for equipment and startup costs.

Councilwoman Linley Jones said she was relieved the drones won’t be used to surveil citizens and touted the benefits of the technology.

“It’s just such an innovative and exciting program,” she said. “And I’m so proud for what I hope will be the second in the country, first in the south to have this program.”

When council members asked what impact the drones can have, Ayana said they are poised to increase safety and efficiency while saving the department time and money.

“We’re going to see a reduction in costs in the amount of man- and woman-hours that are actually required to conduct investigations. Because the drone is going to have intelligence that is gathered in real time versus having to go back and look at surveillance footage. It is literally a game-changer.”

Matt Bruce

Matt Bruce is a writer based in metro Atlanta.