Wright County Sheriff’s Office is exploring use of aerial drones

By John Holler
Monticello Times

In the days following Christmas, we’re likely going to see more flying objects in the sky. They go by many brand names but they’re commonly referred to as drones.

As the prices on them have dropped to making low-end models affordable, more and more people have been using them and getting new and interesting camera angles.

However, when it comes to the police, the use of drones is often viewed as an intrusion of rights and an invasion of privacy.

But, the reality of law enforcement is that any tool that can help in the crisis situations they deal with – from searches for lost children or elderly, active crime scenes like a potential school shooting or getting a different view of a car crash scene that requires collection of evidence, having an eye in the sky is a beneficial tool that is becoming much more common.
Wright County Sheriff Joe Hagerty is exploring the potential uses and benefits of drones for his office. But, given the militaristic genesis of that word – and the negative connotations attached to it – you won’t hear anyone from his office use the D-word.

“We don’t call them drones because there is a stigma around them that people think they would be used for surveillance,” Hagerty said. “They correlate those terms together. We call them UAVs – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. We’re looking to incorporate them in as tools to help law enforcement, not to spy on people.”

Initially, Hagerty wasn’t keen on the idea of going airborne for police work. In light of accusations of privacy infringement and a general wariness of law enforcement that were making daily headlines, when first approached about adding UAVs (aka drones) into his enforcement arsenal, Hagerty was hesitant.

“A couple of years ago, I wasn’t very serious about it, because there was some general distrust of law enforcement,” Hagerty said. “We didn’t experience that here in Wright County, but we know it’s out there. But, we could have used them in the past with missing person tragedies. That has kind of turned me around on the idea of using them.”

Just as Kevlar vests are a positive tool for law enforcement, the use of views to a scene unavailable before technology made it so has combined the recreational enthusiast with cops looking to save a life.

“We’ve had missing people up by Monticello and Elk River that we eventually found deceased,” Hagerty said. “Rather than waiting for a State Patrol helicopter – sometimes they can’t fly depending on availability and weather – we can use one of these UAVs with our staff trained and operating them for search and rescue missions and also there is a 3D feature on the camera where we can help for accident reconstructions and crime scenes from an aerial view.”

Wright County is far from floating a trial balloon on using UAV/drone technology. Hennepin, Anoka and Washington counties all have policies that lay out specific uses for the eye in the sky to be used – which Hagerty says all expressly prohibit them from being used for surveillance purposes.

They can, however, be employed to identify crime suspects. For example, if a crime has been committed and the suspect has fled into a wooded area, instead of putting an officer and a canine at risk, they could employ a UAV to fly over the area to identify the suspect and the level of danger for a specific situation.

“My guess is that most law enforcement agencies and public safety agencies will be using this technology in the very near future,” Hagerty said. “Currently, most of them get a Minnesota State Patrol helicopter for these types of situations. This would not only be much less expensive, but could be airborne and searching much quicker than what we have been doing.”
For those concerned that the sheriff’s department is opening the door to invasion from above, Hagerty wants to assure the skeptical that the world is catching up to Wright County and it’s not intended to pry into their lives.

“Our job is to provide public safety and this is a tool that we can use to that aim,” Hagerty said. “We’ll follow all of the search and seizure rules that currently apply where this could be a tool for us to provide officer safety when executing a search warrant, but there will be very limited uses for it and they will be spelled out for transparency. It won’t be used for ‘fishing expeditions’ – flying over the property of someone we suspect of a crime. There will be a narrow usage of these.”

If anything, Wright County law enforcement is late to the party. In previous searches for missing people in Monticello and Otsego, drone enthusiasts aided in the effort to locate the missing.

“We want people to know that this isn’t Big Brother snooping into their business,” Hagerty said. “We don’t stand for that. We stand for the Constitutions of Minnesota and the United States. A big part of that is people’s privacy and we don’t want to infringe on those rights. It would be a public safety tool that can have many positive uses in trying to save lives and determine what happened at a crime scene from a view we don’t currently have.”

Freelancer John Holler covers government and the Wright County Board of Commissioners.