There’s been a surge in North Texas police officers who are trained to fly drones.
The small aircraft offer many public safety advantages, but so many new police eyes in the sky also raise privacy questions.
Lt. Neal Landfield supervises drones and 22 other officers certified to use them at the Arlington Police Department.
Landfield said the department can’t just go snooping around with drones.
“We don’t use drones to generate probable cause. We go where a police officer has permission to go already,” Landfield said.
Infrared video from an Arlington drone recently helped police determine a wanted man on a roof was unarmed. It led to a peaceful surrender.
Drones can be used to search for armed suspects in confined spaces like attics, where police officers went in the past.
“The first thing the bad guy would see was the officer’s head. But, now we can fly these small drones into attics with no lights and let them see the $500 toy drone,” Landfield said.
Drones can launch quickly to support search and rescue missions for people stranded in storm damage.
“We always have a debate in the United States between the advancement of technology and whether or not our privacies are being consumed,” Tarleton State University criminal justice expert Alex Del Carmen said.
He said the cost of drones was far lower than helicopters, and police training requires safeguards against improper intrusion.
“I only see that as a positive as long as it is used responsibly and within the framework of the Constitution,” Del Carmen said.
A Dallas police briefing this week said the department has trained five officers to pilot drones with plans to add more.
The briefing indicated a public information program is planned to explain the expanded use of drones.
Individuals may purchase and fly drones, but more extensive training and certification are required for police use of the devices.
“There’s a lot of good that can come from a drone if used professionally and legally,” Del Carmen said.
Landfield said Arlington police plan to train eight more officers to pilot drones so the devices that are already available in each of the city’s four patrol divisions could be used around the clock.
“Ideally each side of town would have someone available to support calls for service on that side of town,” he said.
Small basic drone models cost around $600 with the control equipment included. More sophisticated drones cost $10,000 or more.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated Dallas police had 107 drone pilots. The Dallas Police Department has five drone pilots. NBC 5 News regrets the error.