Illustration by Karolina Burdon
Police attempt to pull over a car thief. The suspect flees. Following protocol, the squad car doesn’t give chase; its siren goes silent. But unbeknownst to the bad guy, an aerial drone tracks him back to his lair, where police pounce. This isn’t the opening sequence of a sci-fi thriller. It’s the future of St. Louis, if Chief of Police Sam Dotson is successful in launching a drone program.
Why drones? I think as you look at progressive law-enforcement agencies and things that they’re trying to do to maximize budgets to keep officers and people safe, it seems like a natural progression.
And you’d like to focus on pursuits? One of the most dangerous things that officers engage in are pursuits. They’re dangerous for the officers. They’re dangerous for the public. They’re dangerous even for the criminals and the suspects that run from us. One idea that I had for drones was to be able to monitor cars that run from us, and then be able to follow them into a spot where it’s safe for us to tactically effect an arrest.
And currently your policy is not to chase? I believe that the Metropolitan Police Department in the city has one of the more restrictive pursuit policies from around the country. We don’t chase for any property crime. We only chase for violent crimes, when if the suspect escapes, there is the threat of additional harm or danger. Criminals adjust to our tactics, and they know our rules as well as we do. So if they are in a stolen car, they run from us. If they have just stolen something from a Schnucks or a Walgreens, they run from us. Our pursuit policy doesn’t allow us to chase them. So that’s an example of how using surveillance, a drone, a helicopter, something like that, we could still effect an arrest.
Why not just use a helicopter? We do use helicopters. We have a great partnership we call Metro Air Support, between the city, St. Louis County, and St. Charles County. But helicopters are very expensive to operate, $1.6 million to purchase, plus fuel, plus hourly maintenance, plus pilots, plus, plus, plus. When you look at the cost benefit toward a drone, it’s much less expensive to operate, to maintain, to keep in the air.
How else could the drones be used? Anything that you can use a costly helicopter for, you can use a less-expensive drone: pursuits, open-air drug markets, big events like Fair Saint Louis or the World Series, for missing persons, for traffic monitoring, for congestion, a variety of things. I know Boston has been talking about using drones at the next marathon.
Does the technology exist to do what you’re talking about? The concept of using drones domestically is a new concept. I think the FAA, probably very smartly, is stepping into this space very slowly. So the idea is to get approval from the FAA, to get a small program working, and then to expand on it. You don’t go from zero to 100 right away. Our first conversation is, “Do we want one?” I think the answer is yes. The next phase is to get recognized by the FAA, and to be able to fly smaller ones, be able to prove our proficiency, and then be able to expand the program.
The FAA has some pretty restrictive rules. You can’t go higher than 400 feet, can’t fly at night… Yes, there is a weight limit, height limit. But that is the first tier, and then there is another tier and another tier. The idea is to get a program, to get it up and running, to have some successes to show the community how it works, and then expand to those bigger things. But we have to crawl before we can walk, and certainly walk well before we run.
Are there privacy concerns? One of the biggest questions I got was, “Well, are you going to spy on me?” I think that we as a society sometimes are schizophrenic. In public space, people should have no expectation of privacy. It’s just the world that we live in. If you walk into a bank, you’re on video. If you want into a movie theater, you’re on video. If you walk down the street, some neighborhoods have video cameras. I don’t see a drone being any different than that. But I’m not looking to spy on people; what I’m looking to do is keep them safe.
Privacy aside, do you have the public’s support? In Seattle, people weren’t crazy about drones, so the police scrapped their plans. People want to be safe and people want to feel safe. This is one way to do it. Our budgets are shrinking, so you have to do more with less. This is certainly a force multiplier, keeps people safe, saves on auto crashes, saves on liability, saves on a variety of things. So we have to be progressive.
I’ve heard drones cost between $60,000 and $300,000. Have you looked at prices? Depending on the platform that you use, depending on the operator, yeah, I think that’s a good number for a start-up program.
How soon could these be in the air? It’s probably 12 to 18 months down the road, by the time we clear all the FAA approvals. I wanted to be very thoughtful about this. I’ve been talking about it since almost January, when I had a chance to take over this position. It’s not something that you just turn on the switch overnight. We want to make sure that the public knows what we’re doing. We want to make sure we research it thoroughly. We’re pursuing the program, but we don’t have any flying right now, because we want to be very smart about our approach.
Did you hear about the drone program at the Missouri School of Journalism? They got grounded. That’s why I wanted to be very thoughtful and make sure that we do it correctly. That’s why we didn’t rush out and buy anything. We’re working on the FAA approvals right now.
Will you be blowing up any houses? These are unarmed. These are just surveillance. They have optics. They don’t have guns, missiles, napalm…