“It allows us to get a 360-degree view of the site,” said Lt. Patrick Richardson of the Castle Rock Fire Department. “It takes pictures and HD video and really allows us to see the whole structure.” This drone is new — only its second time in use. It belongs to South Metro Fire Rescue, but is available to partnering agencies for investigative purposes.
Use of drones for public services is an expanding trend throughout the country, state and Front Range. Law enforcement and first responders are excited about its potential to help investigations — from photographing accident scenes to search-and-rescue operations.
“It’s the smart way to do law enforcement,” said Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, whose department recently received its first drone.
However, some citizens and legislators worry about how the new technology will intersect with privacy concerns.
Law enforcement has a history of adopting cutting-edge technology, including many items common today, such as automobiles, motorcycles, telephones, radios and cameras. Until recently, drones were primarily used by the military. They were originally developed during the Cold War but did not see widespread military use until the start of the conflict in Afghanistan in 2001.
But according to Kory Nelson, chair of Douglas County’s subcommittee on unmanned aerial vehicles, today’s technological revolution with drones is a direct result of the combination of the miniaturization and cost-reduction of digital cameras.
Today, wireless video streaming and the increased reliability of aerial platforms for such cameras with gyroscope stability and GPS navigation tools make high-quality videography possible.
“Law enforcement has been using helicopters and planes in the past,” Nelson said. “This is another extension of that technology.”
Interest in the civilian world has grown to a point where there are now retail locations, including one in Castle Rock.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office’s new drone was donated by the National Technical Investigators’ Association, a nonprofit organization that provides additional training to law enforcement and intelligence professionals. The DJI Phantom2 is a hobbyist version of a drone and retails for $3,000.
The sheriff’s office is looking at using the device primarily to assist in search-and-rescue operations and photograph crime and accident scenes.
Other potential uses for drones include disaster and emergency response, HAZMAT accidents and wildfire investigations, law enforcement officials said.
It could also be used for tracking down seniors, children and mental health patients who become lost in large open spaces or parks.
Douglas County Director of Emergency Management Tim Johnson said the county could utilize drones as part of its wildfire management because of their potential to locate smoke and the importance of early detection.
According to Johnson, launching a helicopter for the same purpose costs $1,800 per hour.
Kerry Garrison of Multicopter Warehouse in Castle Rock, is seeing drone use become more common with private citizens and in the business world, not only with public officials.
According to Garrison, officials use them to monitor controlled burns on Pikes Peak, farmers to monitor livestock and builders to inspect roofs for leaks.
The biggest question mark about drone use is the privacy issue, which has arisen in the past with other emerging technology.
In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed whether the government’s use of airplanes and helicopters to observe activities on the ground constituted a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against illegal search and seizure.
In California v. Ciraolo (1986), the Supreme Court ruled that warrantless aerial observation of a person’s backyard did not violate the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.
The defendant, Dante Carlo Ciraolo, grew marijuana plants in his backyard, shielded from view by two fences. After receiving an anonymous tip, the Santa Clara police sent officers in a private airplane to fly over and photograph his house at an altitude of 1,000 feet. Based on an officer’s naked-eye observation, a search warrant was granted.
Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote for the 5-4 majority, saying, “The Fourth Amendment simply does not require the police traveling in the public airways at this altitude to obtain a warrant in order to observe what is visible to the naked eye.”
At an April 30 public meeting in Highlands Ranch about drone use, the sheriff’s office addressed similar concerns.
Diane Schrack, of Highlands Ranch, said she worries about the potential misuse of the technology.
The sheriff’s office “needs to be able to guarantee the community’s trust,” she said.
Spurlock reinforced law enforcement is governed by the Fourth Amendment when using drones.
“I don’t get to fly that thing without a search warrant,” Spurlock said.
It is illegal to fly a drone in a state or national park in Colorado, but few rules exist regarding their use elsewhere in the state. Colorado lawmakers have debated putting limits on drone surveillance this session.
At the April 30 meeting, some residents expressed concerns about not being able to differentiate the sheriff’s office drone from one owned by a private individual. The sheriff’s office said it is not opposed to putting identifying stickers and phone numbers on the unit.
“If we don’t need to deploy it and it sits in its box for a long time, so be it,” Spurlock said. “No harm, no foul.”