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Peoria police are eager to expand the department’s drone program

Peoria Police Sgt. Sherrell Stinson operates one of the department's drones behind police headquarters.
Joe Deacon
Peoria Police Sgt. Sherrell Stinson operates one of the department's drones behind police headquarters.

The Peoria Police Department is expanding its fleet of drones with some updated models, with department officials calling it another example of incorporating technology to better serve the community.

Sgt. Sherrell Stinson, who leads the police department's six-year-old drone program, says one of the biggest benefits is being able to have drones act as first responders.

“Any call for service that a police officer can go to, a drone can go to, for the most part,” Stinson said. “We definitely will use them for missing persons, children and endangered persons. Any type of pursuit, places that we don't want personnel to go to, originally: SWAT call-out [or] any type of negotiation.

“And we're expanding our program to not just police drones, but city drones.”

Stinson has been operating drones for about 11 years. He is one of the department's 12 drone pilots accredited by the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA].

While drones are very helpful in many situations, he said the state's Freedom From Drone Surveillance Act clearly identifies ways they cannot be used, such as unwarranted monitoring.

“We can't just throw it up because we decide, ‘Hey, we're having a lot of issues in this area. Let's just throw the drone up and just have it patrolled itself,’” Stinson said. “We also don't look through a person’s windows or something like that.

“A lot of times people are worried about the thermal aspect of it; the thermal aspect does have its limitations, and is not going to have like X-ray vision or anything like that. But anytime that we're using these drones, our citizens’ privacy and their constitutional rights are foremost for us.”

At its most recent meeting on April 23, the Peoria City Council unanimously approved spending $100,000 from a Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity [DCEO] grant to purchase new drones and equipment. Since one of their current drones is now obsolete, Assistant Police Chief Brad Dixon said the time has come to upgrade.

“Part of us getting in the drone game early is a good thing, but in the sense of how fast technology moves, it put us behind the eight-ball a little bit, if you will,” Dixon said. “We got into drones early, and then some new technologies came out and the capabilities have just expanded so fast. Now we're really just catching up and getting current.”

Dixon said the department is looking to add anywhere from 12-18 new drones, depending on cost and what best fits the agency's needs.

“The drones are so much better than they used to be. You can fly longer; they're smaller; they're more wind resistant, more weather resistant,” Dixon said. “All these are things that we don't have. It's just the future. That's just the reality. That's what's coming.”

Dixon noted each deployment of a drone will be tracked, and its usage will be detailed on an online transparency dashboard. Stinson said the drones also are helpful for overseeing large outdoor gatherings like parades.

“The drones are perfect for that. Once we have that authorized use, we’ll put out our signage around the area within 24 hours of the usage so the public's aware that there will be drone uses at this event,” Stinson said. “Once we're up, we're able to help traffic, let people know about traffic flow and any type of congestion that up maybe causing a problem. [Places] where a lot of officers may have trouble getting to fast, we can send a drone to either escalate or deescalate the call.”

Stinson said the biggest improvements with the newest drones will be longer battery life and improved camera functions.

“Right now, the main drone that we use, the M2-T, it's been about in use about 5-6 years and its flight time is about 20 minutes,” he said. “The new drones will easily be about 45 minutes — and, of course, with that better zoom, so you can be more stand-off. For example, when we have to stay within a line of sight, that drone can still probably see farther on the controller or the monitor that we're looking at.”

The drone program won't be limited to just police uses, he said, as they will partner with other departments such as fire, public works and code enforcement.

“It can help the fire department realize if they need a fire extinguisher or if they need a full fire battalion, having a drone get there first,” Stinson said. “Also when it comes to city engineers, if there's something that they're trying to build, drones have better accuracy and capability than older surveying equipment. Or just like when we do traffic reconstruction, a drone can actually do a much better job in a faster time and [collect] more accurate footage.”

Stinson said police view drones as a workforce multiplier that allows them to maintain positive community interactions and potentially keep situations from escalating.

"We may only send up one officer or one supervisor to say, 'Hey, we just got to call on this,'" he said. "We're making sure you guys are all good. Versus you see a bunch of squad cars pull up and we're getting out. Where's the party? Where's the fight? Where's the fire?"

Dixon said In addition to purchasing more drones, the department plans to train and certify more officers to operate them.

“Quite frankly, the more pilots we have, the more flexibility we have, so they understand the laws we have policies and procedures in place," he said. "And it's an easy one for me. We get them trained up they go take the test in a controlled environment and they're certified and it just allows us to be more flexible on when we can fly and who we can fly with. So we look to expand the number of pilots fairly quickly."

Stinson said the police department is not allowed to fly the drones higher than 400 feet, and they have to stay within view.

“The drones themselves, they probably can go out miles, but we are bound to line of sight,” he said. “So, we'll always have a pilot and that pilot will have an observer. That observer’s job is to make sure that this pilot is not going to fly into anything. If it gets to the point where the observer can no longer see the drone, we need to either bring it back or we need to find another observer.”

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.