June 15, 2024

Preparing for Drones as First Responder and Threats from Rogue Drones


PERF members,

In 2018, the Chula Vista, CA Police Department implemented its innovative drone as first responder (DFR) program. In 2020, PERF issued two reports – a Roadmap to Implementing an Effective Unmanned Aircraft System Program and Drones: A Report on the Use of Drones by Public Safety Agencies. Since those reports were published, the use of drones by police has grown and evolved, with over 1,400 departments operating some version of a drone program. Our Annual Meeting in Orlando included a panel discussion about how departments are evolving their use of drones, the growth of DFR programs, and lessons learned about community engagement and education, policies and training, and managing vendors and costs. 

Panelists discuss DFR programs at the 2024 PERF Annual Meeting in Orlando

Montgomery County, MD Chief Marcus Jones

We have been running a drone as a first responder program since November 2023. We are running two locations, both off high-rise buildings. We’ve run 724 flights, all off 911 calls. In 71 percent of those calls, the drone is on scene before an officer. Our current response time is 60 seconds from the time the 911 call is made.

In 14 percent of those calls, we avoided the need for an officer to respond to the call. The drone gets in the air, identifies the problem, and the operator notifies the officers that there’s no need for a police response. For example, we’ve gotten calls about an individual with a gun. We get up in the air, zoom in with the camera, and see that the individual has some other object in their hand.

We are in very restrictive airspace, so we have to call the FAA directly anytime we’re requesting to fly a mission. They have to give us permission to fly. If you’re in non-restrictive airspace, you don’t have to contact the FAA, but in restrictive airspace, you do. It was a little contentious at first, but they have been very cooperative. With these programs growing, the FAA is getting bombarded with requests. So I think we all have to have a little patience with them.

We make sure the community is really clear on what we’re doing. We have a dashboard that maps every drone flight and lists every call the drone responds to. I think all of us in law enforcement need to make sure we’re educating the community.


Screenshot of Montgomery County PD’s DFR dashboard (Source: Montgomery County PD)

We now have buy-in from the politicians, which wasn’t the case in the beginning. Now every council member wants a drone in their particular area.

I encourage everyone to go to our YouTube page to see good examples of the drone capturing images of suspects in real time.


Drone footage of an individual breaking into a car in a parking garage (Source: Montgomery County PD)

New Orleans Superintendent Anne Kirkpatrick

We are just starting our drone program. We’ve purchased the drones, have 12 pilots, and are about to fly our first mission.

Words matter, so do not use the term “surveillance.” When the community, or politicians, or officers use the word “surveillance,” you correct it on the spot. The word is “security,” not “surveillance.” We do not surveil our fellow American citizens, unless we’re operating under very strict legal requirements.

We asked the community to weigh in on our policy draft, and we received some good feedback. As a result of that feedback, we decided not to fly a drone for any kind of protest or freedom-of-speech issue. So when people are marching or expressing their freedom of speech, we do not fly, and that was a direct result of asking the community about our policy draft.

Boulder, CO Interim Chief Stephen Redfearn

We’ve had a drone program for several years. We have 13 certified operators, and 13 drones we use in a multitude of capacities throughout the city. We don’t have a full-time DFR program, but we have them up for special events and out in a patrol car every shift, ready to be deployed.

We use drones for a multitude of things. We use them in conjunction with our Flock cameras, so assist with motor vehicle recoveries. We use them on almost every SWAT operation. There’s no more “fire season” in Colorado; it’s all the time. We use drones to respond to those fires. And we use them for traffic crash reconstruction.


Drone footage of a crash scene (Source: Boulder PD)

Boulder is very, very progressive, so I was actually surprised at how well they’ve been received. We don’t call them “drones”; we refer to the “UAS program.”

I think we will get to a full-time DFR team. It’s partly a staffing concern, and we don’t have a level of violent crime that would have us up in the air all the time. But I see DFR as a future full-time program as we hire more officers.

West Palm Beach, FL Lieutenant Clifford Hagan

We are in the process of rebuilding and reestablishing our drone program after being grounded for a little while by some state regulations. We are starting up a drone as a first responder program that will deploy from rooftops.

The area within a three-mile radius of our launch site will include 75 percent of the violent crime occurring in the city. We can have a drone on scene within about a minute and a half, so we immediately get situational awareness for the officers coming onto the scene. That video can be shared with the officers, the sergeants, and the lieutenants.


Screenshot of West Palm Beach PD’s drone dashboard (Source: West Palm Beach PD)

We’re pairing this flight center with our real-time crime center, so the pilot will have their own office inside that center. There will be the ability to communicate, but the pilot also can shut the door and fly without interruption.

Florida has a law restricting use of drones from “countries of concern,” which includes China and several other countries. We are not allowed to fly, operate, or use government funds to purchase drones from a country of concern. That knocks out a lot of drone vendors, which are based in China. A couple companies we can purchase from are now rolling out reasonably priced drones.

Volusia Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Bobby Woell

Our drone program is a rapid response program, so we’re deploying from patrol cars. We have 13 drones issued to our patrol deputies, and another two on standby for critical incidents. And we’re somewhat rebuilding our program after navigating the state law on drones from countries of concern. Cost is a concern, because we’re paying three, four, or five times as much as we paid previously for DJI drones.

I don’t think we’re headed towards a DFR program because of the size of our county and how many jurisdictions are within the county. We have a multitude of different drones for different operations. Our drones with longer battery life can be used for roughly 40-45 minutes on SWAT calls. We have drones we can fly inside to clear buildings. We recently took over law enforcement on our beach, so our deputies are supporting lifeguards with water rescues. We can put a drone up to search for a missing person, and it’s much faster and cheaper than utilizing an aircraft.

Addressing Threats Posed by Rogue Drones

Some panelists also discussed the threat posed by drones, which was a topic covered in one of our reports published in 2020 (see p. 61-79). That report included memorable testimony from several police officials. John Miller, who then served as head of counterterrorism for the NYPD, discussed how the use of drones by terrorists began with ISIS in 2013. Then-NYPD Chief of Department Terry Monahan spoke about the threat of a drone attack at major events in the city, such as the New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square. NFL Chief Security Officer Cathy Lanier discussed her coordination with the FBI, DHS, DOJ, and the FAA to deploy drone countermeasures at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. She said security officials detected 74 drones in the area during the days leading up to the Super Bowl.

In the years since that report, I’m not sure we’ve made many advances in our ability to address the threat of an unsanctioned drone. Imagine a drone entered the airspace above a major sporting event, political rally, or government building in your community. Would your agency know what to do? Would you know which federal agency to call?

Many in the defense and security industry are working to address the threats rogue drones can present, but local law enforcement needs to be involved in these conversations, too. In a coordinated multi-site attack or a threat to a small local event not involving federal law enforcement, local law enforcement would be a critical response option. Just as the 9/11 Commission spoke about a “failure of imagination” and the need to imagine the unthinkable, the federal government and local law enforcement should be developing guidance and response options for drone scenarios we have yet to consider.

Thanks to all our panelists for taking the time to share their expertise, and to Chris Fisher, PERF’s Director of Strategy and Implementation, for planning and moderating this excellent panel.

Have an amazing weekend!