Police drone use expanding around Western Washington

Jul 22, 2019, 5:56 AM | Updated: 11:32 am

Drones are becoming more common in Washington and among their fans are various law enforcement agencies. While some departments tout their benefits an are increasingly using them in the field, others are hesitant to use police drones.

What you should know about using a drone in Washington’s parks

With more than 100 drones, the Washington State Patrol is now estimated to have the largest fleet in the nation of any law enforcement agency (neighboring Oregon State Police have three). But WSP is not alone. More and more local police departments across Western Washington have added drones to their tool kits in recent years.

The Renton Police Department is one agency that has expanded its use of drones since it started using them in 2016.

“Initially, we just used them like the Washington State Patrol is doing now, for mapping crash scenes,” said Renton Police Commander Chad Karlewicz. “Then we expanded to crime scenes, mapping those. Our SWAT teams use them extensively. So they’ll use those to fly indoors and search a structure with a drone before we send bodies in there. We use them for SWAT mobile watches when we are doing warrant services, those kind of things. And earlier this year, we rolled them out to most of the divisions in our department, so every patrol crew has a pilot and a drone available to them…”

Karlewicz says that a drone takes much less time to map crime scenes. The Washington State Patrol has also said as much, and told KING 5 that mapping a crash scene previously took about three to four hours. With a drone, it takes 20 minutes.

Renton PD using drones

Karlewicz says that the police department is “probably averaging 30-40 missions a month” with drones from SWAT to patrol officers.

“If we can fly a drone in and clear the majority of a house with a machine instead of putting a human in there, possibly in danger, we do that,” he said. “Same thing for a high-risk stop and the subject is refusing to get out of a car. It would be nice to see what he is doing in the car. So we might fly a drone up and look inside the car and see what he is doing and if he presents a danger to us, tell if he’s armed and that kind of thing.”

“So really it’s progressed to a point where that tool keeps us safer and more efficient,” he added.

Police have to fly under the same rules as hobbyists and must keep drones under 400 feet altitude. Karlewicz says that for police operations, they need to be around 50 feet for decent video and photos. Any video or photos that the drones capture are public records, just like body cam footage, and are available to the public.

“We have fairly robust policies in place,” Karlewicz said. “I know there is always that concern about big brother and that kind of thing … but policies prohibit us from random surveillance. They tell us not to point cameras in the direction of private, uninvolved citizens. Really, we are using them for specific purposes … that’s why we have a policy that on a mission, we will record it. That is our effort to be transparent.”

Renton uses the Autel Robotics’ EVO model – a Seattle-based company. They cost around $1,000 each and are equipped with a 4K camera (high definition). They also have three Mavic Pro drones with thermal cameras, which can be a bit more expensive. Those are used for SWAT and special operations. The department also has one commercial-grade drone — DJI Matrice 210. That cost about $18,000.

Police drones in Western Washington

Drones are sometimes referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

While Renton is an example of a police department embracing drones, not every agency is adopting them. Tacoma does not use them. Police departments in Kirkland and Everett don’t use drones, but officials have looked into using them. Seattle toyed with starting a pilot program in 2013, but quickly canceled it after significant public push back.

The King County Sheriff’s Office uses them for search and rescue operations. The office does not own the drones, however, and relies on volunteers with their own equipment.

The Redmond Police Department is developing its own drone program. The Redmond City Council is currently working out final details before launching.

Kent police have an extensive UAV program, primarily for crime and crash scene documentation. Kent has six drones: one DJI Inspire 2 assigned to its traffic unit for collision and crime scene mapping; three DJI Mavic Pro Platinums that can be deployed from patrol cars, also assigned to traffic units; One DJI Mavic 2 Pro for the detective unit for crime scene mapping; and one DJI Mavic Pro Platinum (with forward looking infrared) for the patrol division.

The Kent Police Department says its drones are primarily used for documentation and mapping of collision and crime scenes. The police drones are also used in tandem with K9 units, to assist with locating suspects, search and rescue operations, and any other situation where having a view from above is helpful.

Kent has developed a range of policies to govern the use of drones, prohibiting the filming of people or places where a person would have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as inside a house or fenced yard. All drone missions must be approved by a sergeant or higher rank. Kent police can use the drones in dangerous situations, such as incidents with armed suspects or high-risk warrants. All flights are logged and video recordings are kept as public records.

Tukwila police have used drones since 2017, but operate with a special set of rules.

“We were one of the pioneers of this program in Washington,” said Victor Masters with the Tukwila Police Department. “We are in a unique area in that we are in restricted airspace. As such, there are a lot of requirements prior to even putting a UAS up. All of our officers that operate the UAS are certified UAS pilots and must pass a FAA Remote Pilot Certificate exam.”

Tukwila has consulted a variety of sources from the Department of Justice to the ACLU in develop its drone regulations.

MyNorthwest reached out to various police departments in Western Washington about their drone programs. This article will be updated if more information becomes available.

Local News

Echo Glen...
Dalton Day

Echo Glen youth detention center, site of recent escape, understaffed, underfunded, report says

A 2018 report indicates that employees of Echo Glen insist that the detention facility is short staffed, and that its counselors are not sufficiently trained.
19 hours ago
Washington voting...
Nick Bowman

Washington weighs significant changes to how (and when) it votes in 2022

A trio of proposals related to how Washington conducts its elections could bring dramatic voting changes to the state by the end of the legislative session.
19 hours ago
Paine Field 5G...
KIRO Newsradio Newsdesk

5G concerns, fog lead to more cancellations at Paine Field

More Alaska Airlines flights out of Paine Field were cancelled Thursday, citing issues created by the combination of 5G signals and fog.
19 hours ago
catalytic converter...
MyNorthwest Staff

Competing proposals for catalytic converter theft crackdown up for Thursday vote

Competing proposals from Democrats and Republicans to crack down on catalytic converter thefts are set for committee votes on Jan. 27.
2 days ago
Gov. Jay Inslee, long-term care tax...
MyNorthwest Staff

Gov. Inslee approves 18-month delay on long-term care tax

The Washington State Senate voted to delay implementation of the new long-term care payroll tax on Wednesday. 
2 days ago
Rideshare companies...
Nick Bowman

Rideshare companies pour millions into PAC ahead of push for Washington ballot initiative

Rideshare companies have poured over $2 million into a new PAC, in what appears to be the precursor for a Washington ballot initiative. 
2 days ago

Sponsored Articles


Compassion International Is Determined to ‘Fill’ a Unique Type of Football ‘Stadium’

Compassion International SPONSORED — During this fall’s football season—and as the pandemic continues to impact the entire globe—one organization has been urging caring individuals to help it “fill” a unique type of “stadium” in order to make a lasting difference in the lives of many. Compassion International’s distinctive Fill the Stadium (FtS, fillthestadium.com) initiative provides […]

What are the Strongest, Greenest, Best Windows?

Lake Washington Windows & Doors SPONSORED — Fiberglass windows are an excellent choice for window replacement due to their fundamental strength and durability. There is no other type of window that lasts as long as fiberglass; so why go with anything else? Fiberglass windows are 8x stronger than vinyl, lower maintenance than wood, more thermally […]

COVID Vaccine is a Game-Changer for Keeping our Kids Healthy

Snohomish Health District SPONSORED — Cheers to the parents and guardians who keep their kids safe and healthy. The dad who cooks a meal with something green in it, even though he’s tired and drive-thru burgers were tempting. The mom who calms down the little one who loudly and resolutely does NOT want to brush […]
Experience Anacortes

Coastal Christmas Celebration Week in Anacortes

With minimal travel time required and every activity under the sun, Anacortes is the perfect vacation spot for all ages.

Delayed-Onset PTSD: Signs and Symptoms

Lakeside-Milam Recovery Centers SPONSORED — You’re probably familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder. Often abbreviated as PTSD, this condition is diagnosed when a person experiences a set of symptoms for at least a month after a traumatic event. However, for some people, these issues take longer to develop. This results in a diagnosis of delayed-onset PTSD […]

Medicare open enrollment ends Dec. 7. Free unbiased help is here!

Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner SPONSORED — Medicare’s Open Enrollment Period, also called the Annual Election Period, is Oct. 15 to Dec. 7. During this time, people enrolled in Medicare can: Switch from Original Medicare to a Medicare Advantage plan and vice versa. Join, drop or switch a Part D prescription drug plan, […]
Police drone use expanding around Western Washington