Shelby County Sheriff’s Office explores using drones for patrol

Published 12:33 pm Wednesday, January 17, 2024

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By NOAH WORTHAM | Staff Writer

The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office is exploring opportunities for employing drones for use in patrol.

While the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office has already adopted the use of drones in its tactical response unit, the department is currently involved in a bidding process that will potentially acquire new drone units for use in normal patrol functions.

“What we are looking to do is expand beyond the tactical element to more of a patrol and response element,” Chief Deputy Clay Hammac said.

The SCSO was inspired to explore new ways of employing drones by other departments around the country.

“We have been watching other agencies across the southeastern United States and how they’ve utilized their drone programs,” Hammac said.

Hammac said the SCSO has monitored the success rate of other departments utilizing drones in operations such as search and rescue, apprehension efforts and even aerial photography of crime scenes.

The SCSO has already begun utilizing drones in its Tactical Response Unit which is the department’s equivalent of a SWAT, special weapons and tactics, team.

“We’ve also recently begun using drones in our tactical element for building clearing purposes or for reconnaissance,” Hammac said.

The tactical response drones allow the department to see the benefits of the technology firsthand while also deploying them in ways that can also help protect officers.

“We utilize those drones for building clearing,” Hammac said. “I feel a lot safer sending a drone into a house where we have reports of an armed suspect as opposed to a team of individuals.”

The new patrol drones would allow the SCSO to utilize real-time video from a command post position to the drone operator.

“If we have a high priority call that comes over the radio through 911 (and) we have a deputy in the area that’s requesting assistance—a nearby deputy could ideally throw a drone up airborne and be in the area and at least give us a second set of eyes on that deputy while he’s waiting for another patrol deputy to come to his aid,” Hammac said.

The drone units would also complement the SCSO’s aviation units and could be used for rapid deployment to the location of a scene as opposed to a helicopter which may need to time to deploy if it’s not actively patrolling at the time.

Hammac said this form of rapid deployment would provide aerial surveillance and could aid in a search and rescue effort or in a situation where there is a barricaded subject and the police need to isolate and contain the area safely.

Hammac also addressed any possible concerns residents may have of surveillance being utilized in an improper manner by the sheriff’s office.

“We are constitutional officers, and we take our oaths very seriously,” Hammac said. “Our fundamental duty is to make sure that we are not only protecting, but upholding the rights of all of the citizens we serve.”

Hammac said the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office is utilizing these drones more for an officer safety advantage as the county’s population, traffic flow and call volume increases.

“We are trying to think outside of the box (on) how we can remain proactive and effective in serving our community without putting our deputies at any further risk or in dangerous situations due to low staffing,” he said. “As we see a paradigm shift of law enforcement becoming more creative in utilizing intelligence led policing efforts, this seems to be one of those next steps for us.”

The Shelby County Sheriff’s office will obtain drones for use in patrol functions at a later date after undergoing the state’s bid process through the county.