The Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office Unmanned Aerial Systems Unit has doubled in size since it began service in 2018. The team's leader, Sgt. Jermiah Gates, says the team has also grown its crime-fighting capabilities.
He says drones are used in a variety of calls, including SWAT situations, traffic accidents, and missing persons cases.
Gates says the drones can truly be lifesaving in high-danger situations.
"We've been used on several SWAT calls," Gates said. "We have had some successful ones where we've had people inside the house that have attacked officers or shot at officers. We've taken the drones inside, and have been able to locate the suspect inside the house, keep an eye on the suspect while the SWAT team was able to go directly to them, and then pull them out of the house."
Some drones in the ACSO arsenal have thermal imaging capabilities, to help find people in all sorts of terrain. Gates is also hoping to add another drone soon that shatters glass in SWAT situations and has communications abilities so negotiators can look at and talk to a suspect in real time.
Currently, the team does not have an official budget and instead uses dollars from different agency factions as needed. Gates hopes to see that change as the team grows to assist in more sheriff's office issues.
When the team first started, Gates said they only responded to a handful of calls. Now this year, Gates says they took up to 80 calls.
The team consists of 11 deputies who are each assigned to various disciplines in the agency, including traffic patrol, investigations, and school resources. All team members carry a drone in their patrol vehicle so it can be deployed at a moment's notice.
The unit also helps other agencies with various calls. In 2019, they helped Aurora Police find a bear on the loose.
Now, the unit is helping other agencies get off the ground with similar programs of their own.
"We're getting with several agencies right now about what they need, what kind of equipment they might want to purchase, the laws that they have to follow when it comes to drones, and we're trying to help," Gates said. "We're always willing to help any other agency to start their own programs."
The unit meets once a month to practice drone pilot skills with a specialized training course near the Arapahoe County Fairgrounds.
Team member Deputy Bryan Teany says it's a pleasure serving on the unit.
"Being able to help another agency, start their program here hopefully, will be another hugely rewarding thing, and they're going to be able to use some of my experience with their own experience and serve their community," Teany.
What about some concerns of invasion of privacy?
"I don't care what's in your backyard. I'm not looking in your backyard. I'm looking at our scene and only our scene, and I'm not processing anything that happens outside of that, that's not our concern," said Gates. "We're focused on our scene, and only the crimes at hand, and not any other type of surveillance, and even when we're using things like thermal cameras, I can't see inside your house. I can't see if there's someone inside, it's not like the movies."
Gates believes drones in law enforcement are only going to take off from here.
"This is going to be the future of law enforcement," Gates said. "I think at some point, you're going to see, as the technology gets better and we are able to use more with the airspace, I think you're going to see where the drones respond to the calls. We can utilize drones to respond to a call for service to get eyes on something. Whether it be a suspicious vehicle or shooting or something, some type of a crime we can get the drones in there before the officers ever get there. So, we can get make it safer... It's amazing the way that this has just grown over leaps and bounds over the last few years."
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