As technology evolves, so do the ways crimes are committed—and the ways they’re solved. While drone technology has presented law enforcement with prime examples of both sides of this coin, it appears that, at least for now, the positives outweigh the negatives.
Sergeant Ryan Wisniewski is part of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department’s UAS (unmanned aircraft system) Unit. Last year, the team flew a total of 87 drone missions, the bulk of which were for life-saving purposes.
And while Wisniewski has rarely seen drones used in criminal acts, he does point out that the interference caused by a drone that’s in the wrong place at the wrong time can have extreme consequences.
Wisniewski spoke with A&E True Crime about how drones are used by—and against—law enforcement today.
What problems have you seen caused when civilians use drones?
[At times] they go up when there’s a fire, and it prevents Cal Fire, our state fire guys, from being able to launch an aircraft. That might be the biggest problem we have right now—they want to get the cool photo and put it online.
What’s the level of risk there?
If there’s a drone in the air, active at an emergency scene, organizations like Cal Fire will not launch their helicopters. They’ll keep it on the ground or they’ll divert it. [As a result,] California enacted a law that says you cannot fly your drone during an emergency scene, and if you do, law enforcement or fire can take your drone out of the sky, with whatever means they need to. They’re not liable for the damage to your property.
When I was working patrol, I’d get the occasional concerned neighbor calling: ‘My neighbor’s flying this drone thing.’ More often than not, it’s some kid flying a drone in the backyard. In Los Angeles, the paparazzi were using them to fly over celebrity houses, and then [the city] instituted another Peeping Tom law.
What actual drone-assisted criminal acts are you seeing in your area?
We have a patrol station on Imperial Beach, which sits right on the Mexican border, and I think that’s the only instance where we’re seeing a true criminal act with a drone—smuggling. From the Mexican side, someone could strap a pound or two of whatever they want—narcotics, usually, fly it over the border, land it, have someone grab whatever’s on it and then fly it back. The risk to the perpetrator is extremely low.
How common is this?
I’ve only heard of three or four cases, but it’s such a small craft and the border is such a long area, it makes it very difficult for them to narrow in on where [the drone is] going to land or even keep track of it in the sky.
Most drones have navigational lights on them—they’ll tape those over, so the only thing our customs or border patrol [people get] is the sound. Most of these times, it’s occurring at night, so you can’t see it. You just hear a craft. And then it could just be some kid flying his toy in his backyard. It’s extremely difficult to determine—which one is it?
Is there an active effort to curb this? Or is it handled on a case-by-case basis?
From what I know, at this time, it’s a case-by-case situation.
On the flip side, how are drones used to assist with law enforcement?
We use them quite a bit. For instance, we use them heavily for search and rescue. A large portion of San Diego County is rural. We’ve got Anza-Borrego Desert, which is just huge nothingness and openness. We’ll use the drone with FLIR (forward-looking infrared, which senses infrared radiation) or with a zoom camera to look for missing people. We’ve found missing elderly people who have wandered away, lost hikers. In conjunction with our search-and-rescue teams, we can grid out a search area for them 10 times faster.
In a hazmat situation, it’s a lot safer to send in a drone than a person. And it’s a lot faster, too. They don’t have to put on their protective suit, and then walk over to where a truck may have crashed or some chemical barrels may have fallen and released a toxic gas. They can just fly in and read the label on the barrel or the truck that crashed to see what it was carrying [and determine], Is this a threat?
It’s also quicker, in some cases, to deploy a drone to look at a suspicious package. They do have the robots everyone’s familiar with, but they’re really slow, and it takes a lot of time to get the robots out of the van. This is a huge time-saver when seconds count, literally.
In these situations, what do the drones do, specifically?
They’ll get as close as they think they should be, depending on what it is. They can look for wires. If there are wires coming out of the package, they can see what kind of package it is. Every package or every item is going to be handled differently, depending on what tools they need for it.
What kind of training do you need for operating drones?
For our department, we obviously have to comply with all of the FAA rules and regulations.
For everyone operating a drone commercially, they need their part 107 certificate from the
FAA: It’s a knowledge test that’s administered at an FAA facility, and you have to renew it every two years.
For our department, we have a training course for new pilots, and for us it’s a minimum of four hours of flight time and then four hours of observer time. We put our deputies through almost like a driver-safety course, when you learn how to drive, about the controls of the craft, about air space, how to fly different maneuvers. We have a chief pilot who has to sign off on all these different areas of flight for them to be fully certified to go out and fly a real-life mission.
What’s the biggest misconception when it comes to law enforcement’s use of drones?
People’s biggest fear is invasion of privacy. They think we’re using drones to spy on them: ‘It’s big brother looking at me all the time.’ Yes, I work for the Sheriff’s Department, but at the same time, I live in the community, and I wouldn’t want that either.
But even if there were an agency that said, ‘We’re going to use these for surveillance,’ it’s not going to be that effective. It’s a consumer-grade drone. It’s not a military item that’s 30,000 feet in the sky. And it sounds like a pack of really angry bees above your house. You’re going to hear it. You’re going to see it. That’s probably not the best tool if you’re going to surveil, say, a drug house. [That’s] still going to come down to the detective in the car, putting in the long hours at work, [rather] than one of these drones.
[In some cases,] we use them for homicide scenes. We take pictures for the investigators and future court usage, to show an overhead of the homicide scene. When we do that, we’re very careful to minimize what we capture, to protect people’s privacy.
It’s even written into our policy and the policies of other departments [that we] will not use this for surveillance purposes. The sheriff is very particular on balancing privacy with public safety.
Where do you feel like the use of drones is headed?
[As] with anything that’s beneficial, and especially new technology, you’re going to see a benefit from utilizing that tool, but people who commit crimes are going to find a way to exploit that, too.
Amazon’s trying to use it for package delivery, I’ve seen [rescuers] put a life vest or a buoy on it and fly it out to someone who’s drowning, faster than a lifeguard could swim there. We’re seeing companies try to come up with ways to utilize it to put out fires. I’ve seen people trying to put AEDs (automated external defibrillators) on them. So if someone’s having a heart attack, you have this drone that delivers an AED to you.
Then again, you’re still going to have all those people who want to exploit new technology. And let’s be honest: laws don’t keep up with technology. We’re always writing laws to keep up with what has become a problem.