Photo by Jon Anderson.
Hoover police Officer Barry Stamps with the Phantom 4 Professional drone that the department bought to provide aerial views to officers on the ground.
The Hoover Police Department has a new tool officers say will provide a whole new perspective on fighting crime.
The department has purchased and received its first drone — or small unmanned aircraft system, as the Federal Aviation Administration calls them — and is ordering two more, said Capt. Gregg Rector.
The Phantom 4 Professional drone Hoover bought comes equipped with a camera that can relay real-time video footage to officers on the ground, as well as maintaining that footage in a recording.
But don’t expect to see any gun-toting drones — like you see in some TV shows or movies — patrolling the streets anytime soon.
While the military uses armed drones, Rector said he doesn’t foresee that crossing over into civilian law enforcement in the near future — at least not in cities like Hoover.
But there are multiple uses Hoover police hope to get out of the drones, Rector said.
They could be used for monitoring large crowds at public events and traffic flow during peak traffic times or locating a missing person or a suspect during a manhunt, he said.
A drone can provide that aerial view over a large area that can’t be seen by officers on the ground, he said.
Drones also could be used to inspect spills of hazardous materials or suspicious packages — situations where you want to get a close look but not expose a person or police dog to danger, Rector said.
The drones also could come in handy for reconstructing accident scenes or crime scenes, he said. Now, officers sometimes have to call in a fire department ladder truck to get an aerial view of an accident or crime scene to help draw diagrams, he said. Sending a drone to get pictures and video would be much easier and not tie up a fire truck that may be needed elsewhere, he said.
Police now use helicopters for some of these functions, but drones are much less expensive to operate, Rector said.
Hoover paid $2,749 for its Phantom 4 Professional drone. It weighs about three pounds and is controlled by a remote. It can go almost 20,000 feet above sea level, but Rector said he expects Hoover police to generally keep it under 400 feet.
The drone batteries allow them to fly 28 minutes, but police have multiple batteries to extend flying time, and the batteries are rechargeable.
Hoover police plan to initially train three officers to fly the drones, but that could be expanded to include more people in the future, Rector said.
All officers who fly the drones will be certified, he said.
Officer Barry Stamps, who primarily works in the U.S. 280 corridor, will be one of those trained. Stamps said he has been operating drones as a hobby for about four years and is looking forward to using one on the job.
“I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. I thought this was something that could help us,” he said.
More law enforcement agencies have started purchasing drones, said Pat Bruce, the operations supervisor for the FAA Flight Standards District Office for Alabama and northwest Florida.
He doesn’t have a complete list, but numerous agencies in Alabama already have them, including the Anniston and Northport police departments and Cullman and Dale County sheriff’s offices, he said.
Selma Police Chief John Brock said his department purchased four drones early this year and began using them in March at the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
They’re using them mainly for crowd control at public events, he said.
“They’re helping us out a lot,” Brock said. “They’re giving great pictures. The picture quality of the drones is outstanding.”
“We will start using them for investigative purposes. We just haven’t gotten to that point yet,” he said.
The FAA, U.S. Attorney General’s Office and Alabama Attorney General’s Office are still working out guidelines for proper usage of the drones, Brock said.
“It’s real touchy on how you use them and when you use them because of the Privacy Act,” he said.
Rector said Hoover police are still developing their own guidelines for use but certainly will use discretion and get warrants when needed. He understands some people’s concerns, he said.
“We don’t want to violate anybody’s rights. We don’t want to violate anybody’s privacy,” Rector said. “We want to use them to help us do a better job for the citizens we serve … If there’s an expectation of privacy, we’re certainly not going to be hovering in someone’s backyard looking at somebody where we’re not supposed to be.”