GFPD utilizing drones for operations

Drones have steadily become mainstream with applications from military operations to pizza delivery.

Now they’re in use by the Great Falls Police Department.

Earlier this month, GFPD and Great Falls Fire Rescue played a round of show and tell with the City Commission highlighting some of their recent technology and equipment upgrades.

Sgt. Rob Beall of the GFPD gave commissioners an overview of their drone program and brought their two drone models, the DJI Matrice 200 and the Phantom 3.

The GFPD drone program started in the fall of 2017 after the drones were purchased by the Great Falls Police Community Foundation.

GFPD Chief Dave Bowen said his office identifies equipment or training needs that are above and beyond general fund resources. In recent years, the foundation has purchased gas masks/shields for the High Risk Unit; a crime scene digital camera; Tasers for each on-duty officer; a 3D crime scene laser scanner; trauma kits for each patrol vehicle; Honor Guard uniforms; and Level IV ballistic plate carriers.

The GFPD currently has seven drone pilots and each is certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. Both of the drones are also FAA registered.

GFPD has two more officers on deck for drone pilot training, Beall said.

Bowen said interested officers apply within the department for drone training. Any officer is eligible for pilot consideration and the current pilots come from various bureaus within GFPD.

The Phantom 3 drone is used for pilot training and as a backup drone since the Matrice model is a more sophisticated and expensive piece of equipment, Beall said.

The Matrice has a 4,000-foot camera and a FLIR, or thermal imaging, camera. The Phantom also has a 4,000-foot camera.

Beall and Sgt. Tony Munkers supervise the drone program and it falls under the GFPD’s patrol bureau.

Deployment of the drone requires approval of a shift commander or unit supervisor, Beall said, and it’s not used for traffic enforcement or proactive work.

“It’s a response based piece of equipment,” Beall said.

The drone is used for in-progress calls involving a threat to the safety of any person; search and rescue operations; searches for fleeing criminal suspects; crime scene operations; surveillance of criminal suspects; and in support of other agencies by request.

As of Sept. 4, GFPD has used the drone on 17 missions. Five of those were crime scene documentation; five were search and rescue; four were investigative; two were HRU callout support; and one was a public relations flight for the Law Enforcement Torch Run.

Beall said they used it recently when the BNSF train derailed behind the GFPD to see the scene and the extent of the damage quickly without needing multiple officers to walk the tracks to inspect the area.

The drones aren’t toys and can’t be used in any way for personal use.

“We have it to be able to help people,” Beall said.

The GFPD drone program is governed by the FAA Part 107, Montana Code Annotated and applicable case law.

FAA rules require that drones be flown at a maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground level, cannot be flown over any people not operationally involved and cannot be flown at night.

Since GFPD needs the done more often that not after dark, the department applied for a waiver which the FAA granted for nighttime operations, Beall said.

Drones can’t be flown from moving vehicles and require a second person to serve as a visual observer.

Beall said their internal policy is to fly at 400 feet above ground level unless they have a search warrant or exigent circumstances require flying any lower.

Since Great Falls is active airspace, Beall said they also need permission from the air traffic control tower to fly.

If they break the FAA rules, they can lose permission to operate drones, Beall said.

The only other agency in the state with drones is the Montana Highway Patrol. That agency will use them to document crash scenes but their program isn’t yet operational, Beall said.

In 2013, the Montana Legislature adopted a law that place limits on the use of drones for law enforcement.

Under the law, any information obtained from a drone is inadmissible as evidence in any prosecution or proceeding within Montana unless it was obtained with a search warrant or in accordance with judicially recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement.

The law also states that information obtained from drone operations can’t be used in an affidavit of probable cause in an effort to obtain a search warrant unless the information was obtained under the circumstances in the previous paragraph or through monitoring of public lands or international borders.

Bowen said it’s similar to situations in which officers execute a search warrant for a specific purpose and while doing so find other items or evidence. They can then get another search warrant for those specific items, he said.

City Commissioner Mary Moe said she had concerns about privacy and police drone operations.

The FLIR camera can see through glass, but it depends on the type of glass and altitude or angle, and drones can only be used under certain circumstances.

He said he initially had similar privacy concerns and that GFPD developed the drone program with those concerns in mind.

Moe said she’s also concerned about the militarization of the police force and that a private foundation can purchase equipment that moves GFPD in that direction without commission oversight or approval.

Bowen said he appreciated the concerns and that there are guidelines spelled out in legislation. Equipment that is assaultive in nature and clearly for military use isn’t what GFPD is looking to acquire, but they “also have to be aware of the changing nature of crime.”

He said that GFPD also has to publicly post information when they request property on why they need it and what they intend to use it for.

Bowen told The Electric that equipment requests to the foundation are coordinated through his office and that when he believes there might be controversy around a particular item, he first discusses it with the city manager.

Running any tactical decisions by an elected body would be concerning, Bowen said.

“You aren’t equipped,” to make those decisions,” he said. “Those are decisions we’re trained to do and you’re not.”

Moe said she wasn’t accusing GFPD of using drones to proactively search for criminal behavior but was concerned about the lack of oversight from the City Commission in terms of major equipment purchases, especially those that militarize the police.