Spokane Police Department could use drones in investigations

September 25, 2018

The Spokane Police Department could soon use drones to search for missing people and reconstruct crimes, if a resolution authorizing the use of unmanned aerial vehicles passes City Council next week.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear sponsored the resolution and called drone use by police a matter of officer safety. Maj. Eric Olsen of the Spokane Police Department said the department would most likely use the Spokane County Sheriff’s Department’s drones at first, but eventually hopes to purchase three of their own.

Olsen said the drones would be used for investigating crime and crash scenes through aerial mapping and could also be used to track down people who were missing or fleeing from law enforcement at night through thermal imaging. Drones could be used to search for people at difficult-to-access locations, such as along the Spokane River, or to monitor dangerous hostage situations or bomb incidents.

Once the department purchases drones, they would be used by the SWAT team or investigation units, and in north and south Spokane.

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office has already purchased two drones and has been training with the devices for about a month, Spokane County Undersheriff Dave Ellis said. The drones, which are upgraded versions of what is commonly available on the market, are equipped with accident reconstruction and thermal imaging software.

He said the department has mostly used drones to reconstruct accidents or crime scenes because the software can scan an area in 20 or 30 minutes and traditional methods can take hours.

The Spokane Fire Department also has two of their own drones, used to monitor conditions that could become too hazardous for firefighters. Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said the fire department has assisted the police with accident reconstruction before, but the drones usually are usually used for fires or other emergencies.

City Councilman Breean Beggs initially raised Fourth Amendment concerns about police violating people’s constitutional rights. Olsen said the drones would only fly over private property when a person could be in danger or fleeing police.

Ellis said the Spokane Sheriff’s Office primarily uses drones on public property for accident reconstruction, but when investigating crimes on private property, they fall under the investigating detective’s warrant.

The Sheriff’s Office uses a helicopter when searching for missing people, instead of a drone, due to their limited battery capacity, Ellis said.

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