Investigators using drones becoming commonplace in Michigan

LANSING - It’s becoming a more common sight: a small drone flying overhead grabbing pictures and video.

In many cases drones are being flown by hobbyists, but more and more police are relying on technology like drones to enhance investigations.

Michigan State Police introduced it’s first drone to it’s aviation unit back in 2015 — currently they have three units spread out across the state, the next will be stationed in metro Detroit.

“It’s not replacing any of the technology we have out there,” said Sgt. Matt Rogers, the pilot of one of the drones. “It’s just putting another tool in our belt. It just gives us another option we can potentially use in a situation.”

According to Rogers, the main use of drones — also called UAS by the MSP — has been mapping crime scenes, fire scenes and crash scenes. They can be of some use in missing persons cases if one of the helicopters used by MSP is too far away (thought helicopters can still clear much more area, much quicker) and there has been more focus on using them in barricaded gunman situation where a drone may be able to get an eye on a suspect before resorting to putting an officer, or a police dog, in the line of fire.

There’s been talk of smaller drones being utilized more regularly with SWAT teams, though the possibilities of how drones can be used could may just be scratching the surface. The work being done in the field has already led to revelations in the courtroom where juries aren’t used to seeing such detailed mapping and images. In the past Google Maps, or even sketches, were paired with crime scene photos — now a vivid picture with accuracy within a half an inch is shown in courtrooms.

The use of drones, of course, came with some concerns. When MSP first introduced the concept of using drones for police work it came at a time when most people thought of drones as surveillance, or weaponized military tools — while drones like that exist, they’re far different than the camera-based tool being used by police. Sgt. Rogers was quick to point out that MSP collaborated with the American Civil Liberties Union to address any potential privacy concerns.

“We really took that to hear,” said Sgt. Rogers. “Once they saw what this technology is, they had no issues with our policy.”

MSP isn’t the only agency working with drones either. Sgt. Rogers noted that groups like the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office was in contact with them about the program before they started their own drone program.

As for MSP, right now three helicopters are being used across Michigan — they’re based in Detroit, Flint and Saginaw. Three drones are now in use too, but the operators travel all over the state to utilize the drones. Eventually the goal is to have seven drone teams across the state.

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