See Brookhaven’s Drone Program in action.

Video clips:

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In April 2020, the Brookhaven Police Department began research to create an Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) unit. Commonly referred to as drones, UAS provide an efficient and effective way of law enforcement information gathering at incident and emergency scenes as well as during criminal investigations. 

At the time, BPD relied on aerial support from the DeKalb County Police and Georgia State Patrol Aviation units, in the form of traditional manned aircraft. This relationship continues; however, now BPD has an aerial support capability of its own. 

 In addition to the Department’s desire to expand aerial capabilities, the COVID-19 pandemic created a need for innovative ways of limiting public contact.  These reasons together caused BPD to take note of the Chula Vista (CA) Police Department’s Drone as First Responder (DFR) Program. 

Launched in 2018, CVPD pioneered rapid response to police emergencies by using unmanned aerial systems to respond to emergency calls. The DFR program uses drones stationed at permanent locations throughout the city and piloted by sworn police officers who fly them to dispatched calls for service and requests for backup in real time.  The model allows, in most cases, for a drone to arrive on scene well ahead of traditional ground units. 

Using this model, the officer operating the drone can use cameras to evaluate the situation remotely and provide timely information and video footage to responding officers and field supervisors.  This practice creates a number of advantages for responding police officers, including enhanced officer safety through real-time information from another police officer; mitigation of “dispatch priming” by confirming or dispelling caller-provided information before officers arrive on scene; and improved resource allocation abilities as pilot officers guide ground units along the best routes. 

Particularly as a national dialogue centers on police-citizen encounters, the use of UAS technology in response to police calls for service serves an innovative tool for de-escalation. Prior to DFR, officers were forced to rely on third-hand information passed through dispatch from the 911 caller. By dispatching the drone as a first responder, BPD can remotely assess a scene and determine what type, if any, police response is necessary.  This approach avoids unnecessary confrontations and allows pilots to cancel ground units when no evidence of a crime is found.

After extensive research into the CVPD program, Brookhaven Police in October 2020 presented a DFR model to the Brookhaven City Council.  City officials enthusiastically supported the DFR model in conjunction with traditional “portable” drones to be carried by officers for rapid deployment. BPD ultimately obtained seven drones to begin UAS operations. One of the drones is assigned to DFR, and while the others are available for scene-specific rapid deployments.

During the development stages of the DFR program, BPD met with several community stakeholders and civil rights organizations including the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia.  These conversations helped BPD develop procedures for handling and storage of UAS videos and made clear the purpose of the DFR program.  Critical aspects of the program design include using UAS only in response to calls for service or emergency scenes (as opposed to conducting random patrols or aerial “surveillance”); and prohibiting the intentional recording or transmitting of images of any area where a person would have a reasonable expectation of privacy without first obtaining a search warrant.  

Video recordings that do not contain evidence of crimes or hold training value are held only for 30-days.  Footage obtained in conjunction with a criminal investigation is uploaded into the same cloud-based server that stores officers’ body-worn and in-car camera footage and held according to statutory retention periods.

In the spirit of transparency, BPD also plans to publish monthly data on UAS operations on the department’s webpage. These data will include call type, response time, and number of incidents resulting in arrests or evidence recovered with UAS assistance. 

With the program details in place, BPD launched its DFR program – the first in the southeastern United States – in April 2020.  Like in Chula Vista, BPD UAS are positioned at fixed launch points in the city and teleoperated by BPD police officers.  BPD strategically selected launch sites that allowed for maximum flight radius around the areas in which most calls for service are received.  Geofencing and pre-flight programming ensures the drone remains in permissible air space, within City boundaries, and flying free of hazards and obstructions such as power lines.

The flagship of the BPD UAS fleet is the DJI Matrice 300 RTK. The M300 is the latest and most capable UAS platform from industry leader DJI. Capable of flight times up to 55 minutes, the M300 is equipped with a Zenmuse H20T camera. The 20 MP zoom camera is capable of thermal imaging similar to FLIR technology commonly found on manned police aircraft. In addition, the M300 can be equipped with a Wingsland Z15 Gimbal Spotlight with a 10,200-lumen output, and a loudspeaker.

The BPD UAS team is comprised of 17 officers who have achieved FAA certification as Part 107 Remote Pilots.  To obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate, applicants must pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test requiring demonstrated knowledge in keys areas such as weather, operations, regulations, loading and performance, and the National Airspace System. BPD policy further requires monthly in-service training for each pilot.

In addition to the DFR application, Brookhaven Police Department is using UAS technology for crime and crash scene documentation, missing and wanted persons searches, public event security, and in support of North Metro SWAT operations in the cities of Brookhaven, Dunwoody, Sandy Springs, and Johns Creek.

The mission of the Brookhaven Police Department is to “enhance the quality of life for those in our community by providing effective, high quality, and professional police services.”  The UAS program generally, and the DFR program specifically, are excellent examples of high-quality and innovative approaches to policing that are enhancing the quality of life and the quality of police services available in the Brookhaven community.