The Dallas Police Department wants to start patrolling the space between its cops on the ground and its helicopter unit, DPD Assistant Chief Paul Stokes said Monday. The department wants drones, he said, to keep officers safe and provide better surveillance of protests, demonstrations and other large events.
Stokes compared the use of drones by police departments today to the use of body cameras by departments a few years ago. DPD, he said, needs to get ahead of the technology and regulations so the drones can help the department supplement its helicopter operations.
The drones — or small, unmanned aerial systems, as the department prefers to call them — would be used in what DPD calls "static situations." They wouldn't, for instance, chase or track a suspect. Instead, the drones might hover on the edge of a protest or be used to see if anyone was inside a potentially treacherous home or building. The drones would not be used directly over a crowd, so that they don't fall on anyone's head.
It's important, the assistant chief said, for the department to win public support for the drones before they put them in the sky.
"There is a fear of these small, unmanned aerial systems," Stokes said. "People think that we're going to drop them in backyards, spy on people and see what's going on. That is not the purpose of that piece of equipment and typically that would not be done."
Dallas would pay between $7,500 and $30,000 each for the drones, depending on whether the department goes with consumer or law enforcement class vehicles. To use them, DPD would have to get authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration.
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The City Council's public safety committee seemed generally supportive of the plan, but Council member Kevin Felder told Stokes the department should ask Bell Helicopter whether they could build something for DPD before it pays for drones from a company that isn't local.
Felder's colleague Sandy Greyson was disappointed that DPD wouldn't fly the drones directly over crowds but said she hoped DPD would expand their use as the technology improved.
"I could see a hundred different uses for this," Greyson said. "This is just such cool technology, and I can see it being so helpful for police and fire operations."
DPD's next steps, according to Stokes, are winning public support for the drones and designing a pilot program.