Police drone use expanding around Western Washington

Drones are becoming more common in Washington and among their fans are various law enforcement agencies. While some departments tout their benefits an are increasingly using them in the field, others are hesitant to use police drones.

With more than 100 drones, the Washington State Patrol is now estimated to have the largest fleet in the nation of any law enforcement agency (neighboring Oregon State Police have three). But WSP is not alone. More and more local police departments across Western Washington have added drones to their tool kits in recent years.

The Renton Police Department is one agency that has expanded its use of drones since it started using them in 2016.

“Initially, we just used them like the Washington State Patrol is doing now, for mapping crash scenes,” said Renton Police Commander Chad Karlewicz. “Then we expanded to crime scenes, mapping those. Our SWAT teams use them extensively. So they’ll use those to fly indoors and search a structure with a drone before we send bodies in there. We use them for SWAT mobile watches when we are doing warrant services, those kind of things. And earlier this year, we rolled them out to most of the divisions in our department, so every patrol crew has a pilot and a drone available to them…”

Karlewicz says that a drone takes much less time to map crime scenes.

Renton PD using drones

Karlewicz says that the police department is “probably averaging 30-40 missions a month” with drones from SWAT to patrol officers.

“If we can fly a drone in and clear the majority of a house with a machine instead of putting a human in there, possibly in danger, we do that,” he said. “Same thing for a high-risk stop and the subject is refusing to get out of a car. It would be nice to see what he is doing in the car. So we might fly a drone up and look inside the car and see what he is doing and if he presents a danger to us, tell if he’s armed and that kind of thing.”

“So really it’s progressed to a point where that tool keeps us safer and more efficient,” he added.

Police have to fly under the same rules as hobbyists, and must keep drones under 400 feet in elevation. Karlewicz says that for police operations, they need to be around 50 feet for decent video and photos. Any video or photos that the drones capture are public records, just like body cam footage, and are available to the public.

“We have fairly robust policies in place,” Karlewicz said. “I know there is always that concern about big brother and that kind of thing … but policies prohibit us from random surveillance. They tell us not to point cameras in the direction of private, uninvolved citizens. Really, we are using them for specific purposes … that’s why we have a policy that on a mission, we will record it. That is our effort to be transparent.”

Renton uses the Autel Robotics' EVO model – a Seattle-based company. They cost around $1,000 each and are equipped with a 4K camera (high definition). They also have three Mavic Pro drones with thermal cameras, which can be a bit more expensive. Those are used for SWAT and special operations. The department also has one commercial-grade drone — DJI Matrice 210. That cost about $18,000.

Police drones in Western Washington

Drones are sometimes referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

While Renton is an example of a police department embracing drones, not every agency is adopting them. Tacoma does not use them. Police departments in Kirkland and Everett don't use drones, but officials have looked into using them. Seattle toyed with starting a pilot program in 2013, but quickly canceled it after significant public push back.

The King County Sheriff's Office uses them for search and rescue operations. The office does not own the drones, however, and relies on volunteers with their own equipment.

The Redmond Police Department is developing its own drone program. The Redmond City Council is currently working out final details before launching.

Kent police have an extensive UAV program, primarily for crime and crash scene documentation. The city has developed a range of policies to govern the use of drones, prohibiting the filming of people or places where a person would have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as inside a house or fenced yard. All drone missions must be approved by a sergeant or higher rank.

Kent police can use the drones in dangerous situations, such as incidents with armed suspects or high-risk warrants. All flights are logged and video recordings are kept as public records.

Tukwila police have used drones since 2017, but operate with a special set of rules.

“We were one of the pioneers of this program in Washington,” said Victor Masters with the Tukwila Police Department. “We are in a unique area in that we are in restricted airspace. As such, there are a lot of requirements prior to even putting a UAS up. All of our officers that operate the UAS are certified UAS pilots and must pass a FAA Remote Pilot Certificate exam.”

Tukwila has consulted a variety of sources from the Department of Justice to the ACLU in develop its drone regulations.