In March, Madison police got a call that a teenager with disabilities was missing. To aid in the search, the department borrowed a drone from a neighboring police agency to scour Elver Park. With an eye in the sky, authorities quickly found and rescued the teen.
“They were able to cover a lot more area than traditional methods,” assistant Madison Police chief Vic Wahl told the Public Safety Review committee on April 12.
Drones have become a crucial law enforcement tool, Wahl says. “Madison is late to the game when it comes to this. There are hundreds of public safety agencies across the country that have deployed UAS [unmanned aircraft system] devices,” he told the committee. “There are quite a few in Wisconsin that have as well, including a number here in Dane County.”
But the department won’t be without a drone for much longer. And that has some critics worried about police department overreach, privacy and the use of tax dollars.
Wahl told the committee that the department recently spent $18,000 for two DJI Inspire quadcopter drones. The unmanned aircraft will be equipped with several sophisticated cameras including one with thermal imaging, which is useful in searching for missing people and fugitives.
The department is now training a team of six officers, under the direction of a commander, to operate the drones and get them certified as UAS pilots with the Federal Aviation Administration. It is also drafting a standard operating procedure for drones. The new unit will be ready to fly in late May or June.
“We had some funds last year that we were able to allocate for the initial purchase,” Wahl told the committee. “What we are working on right now is what the annual maintenance cost will be just for replacing batteries, propellers, things like that. I don’t anticipate that it’s going to be anything very significant in terms of recurring cost. Training is the other cost we are going through right now.”
The Middleton Fire Department, State Capitol Police and Dane County Emergency Management already use drones in their operations. Wahl told the committee the cost is well worth it for Madison.
“There are number of uses in public safety that a UAS is typically deployed for. The most common is search and rescue…. These can be missing children, Alzheimer's patients, criminal suspects. Whatever the case may be,” Wahl said. Wahl said drones were used during the recent manhunt for Joseph Jakubowski — the Janesville man who allegedly stole 18 guns and mailed a lengthy manifesto to the White House (he was apprehended on April 14, but not because of a drone). Drones will also be deployed as part of security for the upcoming Boston marathon. Another expected use for Madison police is crime scene processing.
“In one of our shootings last year, a homicide that occurred in a parking lot, we borrowed a UAS device. We did some overhead photography and video of the scene,” Wahl said. “It’s just remarkable at how much more context that provides and how that assists in processing the scene.”
Mary Anglim, a committee member, asked Wahl about privacy concerns. Wahl noted that video surveillance is already pervasive in Madison.
“Our [standard operating procedure] is going to be very limited in how we deploy these things. There are going to be specific incidents where we use them and if it's outside those, we aren’t going to use them,” replied Wahl. “Certainly, I recognize when you say the word, ‘Drone’, people’s ears perk up and think about the worst. But the city has 800-plus cameras recording downtown and at intersections that are constantly recording. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg if you figure how many private businesses have video out there.”
The April 12 Public Safety Review Committee was the first time the Madison Police Department publicly acknowledged the creation of a drone unit. It was news to Ald. Paul Skidmore, a committee member.
“The police department doesn’t tell me everything they are doing nor do I expect them to. That doesn’t bother me,” says Skidmore. “I think it's a good idea. One thing in particular, this will allow them to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time during a number of possible situations.”
Chief Mike Koval and Wahl did tell council leadership at a March 9 meeting that the department had purchased drones a few months ago out of their “regular equipment budget,” according to council president Mike Verveer. Wahl also advised the council members that there would be training costs.
“I have no objections to the department having drones,” says Verveer. “I was surprised that it was not discussed with policymakers beforehand.”
Lack of input on the drone unit upsets Ald. Rebecca Kemble. She’s on the Common Council organizational subcommittee on police and community relations, which is drafting proposed changes to police procedures. One recommendation being considered would require approval to buy “surveillance technology.”
“What worries me most about this is we get told after the fact,” says Kemble. “We weren’t told drones had been purchased. We weren’t told, formally, that they had been borrowing drones from other departments. This is exactly why we really need to develop good policy around the purchase and use of all surveillance equipment.”
At the Common Council’s March 27 meeting, alders unanimously approved taking $20,000 from the city’s contingency fund to pay for individual dispensers of naloxone, the drug used to treat opiate overdoses. Kemble wonders why the department had money to buy drones but not “life-saving drugs.”
“The drones weren’t a line item in a budget anywhere, [the department] just came up with $18,000. And yet, they come to the council asking for money for other things,” Kemble says. “They just did it. They didn’t ask for permission or for an allocation to buy them. That’s not okay. That’s not transparency.”
Wahl tells the Public Safety Review Committee that video collected by the drones will be retained in a way that’s “consistent with how we handle squad video.” He insists the department will be transparent with its drone use.
“We do plan on clearly documenting every time we have a deployment of a UAS and doing an annual report so the public can see exactly how often we are using them and what they are being used for,” says Wahl. “They are not going to be used very often.”