WATCH | A police department in Maryland recently used drones to make a burglary arrest.
On March 9, Cecil County (Maryland) Sheriff Scott Adams piloted his department's first operation using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) -- better known as a drone.
“We got a call in reference to some stolen large construction equipment,” Adams said. “The area, it was kind of believed to be where some of the equipment may be stored. It's pretty remote, heavily wooded area. We talked about being able to use our UAV to take a look.”
Adams and his officers were able to capture video of 19 pieces of stolen construction equipment valued at nearly $400,000. The evidence collected using the drone has led to arrests and the return of most of the stolen property.
“If we didn't have [unmanned aerial vehicles] it could've been days, it could've been weeks, it could shut a case down,” Adams said.
The arrest is one of the first in the U.S. made with the help of drones, but they're likely to become more common.
At least 347 law enforcement agencies across 43 states are using unmanned aerial vehicles, according to a recent study by Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone. Many agencies, like the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office, believe that UAVs will help with a range of operations.
If it’s a lost child or some sort of evidence, it saves a dramatic amount of time,” said Sgt. Mike Kalinsky of the Cecil County Sheriff's Office. “We're looking for something that helps us with operations that we've already undertaken on foot and not had the capability to tell a deputy, ‘You have a suspect 150 feet to your right and they're hiding next to this object on the ground.’ That's a huge officer safety resource for us.”
Critics, like Hamid Khan of the activist group Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, say police drones pose a threat to privacy and public safety.
“It has been used for mass surveillance. It has been used for mass targeting. It has been used for intimidation and harassment of our communities,” Khan said. “In essence, there is a constant violation of privacy that is going on.”
Recent legislation around the country is raising more concerns for opponents of police drones. North Dakota legalized the nation's first weaponized police drones in 2015, and a bill currently in Connecticut’s state House of Representatives would legalize the the use of drones equipped with lethal weapons.
“If we're talking about public safety, then let's really talk about real public safety and not just more toys for cops to harass and kill us,” Khan said.
Sheriff Adams says his office is sympathetic to the concerns around UAVs and believes that restrictions already in place will protect the public and the police. “We are very limited in the times that we will use a UAV because we're blending what's good for the public and still protecting privacy rights,” he said.
A 2015 Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that 68 percent of Americans support law enforcement using drones to solve crimes and 62 percent support police using drones to deter crimes.
Sherriff Adams believes support will grow as more operations are conducted. “I’m sure if you talk to victims of those crimes, where we’ve recovered large equipment for them, they’re pretty happy about the use of that technology," he added.