Eyes in the sky: Why more suburban police are using drones

 
Posted10/19/2018 5:00 AM
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  • Stan Taylor with Northwestern University Center for Public Safety flies a drone used in investigating crash scenes by Lake County's Major Crash Assistance Team. More and more suburban police departments are adding drones to their law enforcement arsenals.

      Stan Taylor with Northwestern University Center for Public Safety flies a drone used in investigating crash scenes by Lake County's Major Crash Assistance Team. More and more suburban police departments are adding drones to their law enforcement arsenals. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer, 2017

  • The Aurora Police Department might soon have three DJI Matrice 200 series drones. Police say they'll use the drones for search-and-rescue operations, accident investigations and to watch over officers in high-risk situations.

    The Aurora Police Department might soon have three DJI Matrice 200 series drones. Police say they'll use the drones for search-and-rescue operations, accident investigations and to watch over officers in high-risk situations. courtesy of DJI

Earlier this year, Aurora police found themselves in a dangerous situation: traipsing through head-high brush and plants in a forest preserve, searching for a suicidal woman armed with a gun.

A bird's-eye view would have been helpful. And they might have it by the end of the year, as the city is poised to outfit the department with three camera-toting drones.

Aldermen gave preliminary approval this week to buying four drones, plus equipment including thermal-imaging cameras, for $56,417. The city's information technology department will get the fourth drone.

It's another example of how a growing number of suburban police departments are deploying eyes in the sky for crime-fighting and other law enforcement activities. Last year, the Lake County Major Crash Assistance Team began using a drone to investigate accidents from above, allowing roads to be reopened more quickly after wreckage has been cleared. More recently, police in Wauconda used a drone as part of an investigation into a body found last month in a farm field.

Police in Naperville, Elgin and Carpentersville have either purchased drones or have access to one owned by the town, and Arlington Heights is among the other suburbs considering buying one.

Aurora's plan

Ten Aurora officers will get FAA licenses to fly the DJI Matrice 200-series drones, and another 10 will be trained as observers.

Sgt. Andrew Wolcott said the drones should save the department time investigating car crashes and also reduce the hours and manpower spent searching for missing people. Drones also could be used to help find criminal suspects on the lam and to watch over officers executing high-risk search warrants or dealing with barricade situations.

Unlike in Elgin, Aurora's drones won't be shared with its fire department -- although, Wolcott said, police are willing to help out when needed.

Drones and civil rights

There are limits to how police can deploy drones. Under the 2013 Illinois Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act, police can't use drones to obtain information in a criminal investigation unless they have a warrant or a reasonable suspicion that it's needed to prevent imminent harm, serious damage to property, the escape of a suspect or the destruction of evidence.

A bill pending in the General Assembly would loosen those restrictions to allow police drones over large-scale events, such as concerts, festivals or protests. The measure faces opposition from civil rights organizations like the ACLU and the People's Lobby, as well as some in the legal community.

School threats aren't free speech

Free speech doesn't mean you're free to post online threats against a school, a state appellate court ruled this month in a suburban case that challenged the state law making it a felony to threaten school violence.

A state appeals court has rejected arguments that Aden Khan's online threat against North Central College in Naperville was protected free speech.
A state appeals court has rejected arguments that Aden Khan's online threat against North Central College in Naperville was protected free speech.

Aden Khan was convicted of felony disorderly conduct in 2016 for writing that he was bringing a gun to North Central College in Naperville and "someone is going to (expletive) me off and end up in a bag."

The March 2013 comment was made on the Facebook page "North Central Confessions." Curiously enough, Khan, a Madison, Wisconsin, resident at the time, created the since-deleted page despite never attending the Naperville school.

Khan didn't deny posting the comment, but his attorneys said it was a joke prompted by immaturity and poor social skills. Jurors didn't buy it and found Khan guilty. A judge sentenced him to 180 days in the DuPage County jail, 30 months of probation, 100 hours of community service and counseling.

In his appeal, Khan's lawyers argued the state law violates the First Amendment and the free-speech clause of the Illinois Constitution. In a unanimous decision, the Elgin-based Second District Appellate Court ruled that something a reasonable person would consider a threat -- like Khan's posting -- is not protected free speech.

"The most natural interpretation of the message -- probably the only interpretation that is not wholly unnatural -- is that the sender carried a gun to school every day and someday would get angry enough to use it," Justice Mary Seminara-Schostok wrote.

DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin welcomed the ruling and said the possibility of prosecution could serve as a deterrent for others.

"I think it sends a message that it's not a joke when you make a threat of any kind," Berlin told us this week.

Man walks into a police station ...

Michael Zielinski walked into the Cary police station about 2:26 a.m. Nov. 9, 2016, to report he'd been attacked and beaten by two men. He ended up in handcuffs, facing up to seven years in prison and the loss of his driver's license for the next decade.

Now Zielinski, a 38-year-old Cary resident, is suing his hometown and two of its police officers in federal court, alleging they falsely arrested him on a felony DUI charge when he showed up seeking help.

According to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, the officers immediately suspected Zielinski was drunk and quizzed him about how he got to the station. The suit states Zielinski showed no signs of intoxication -- no stumbling, no problems standing, no difficulty parking his vehicle -- and contends that's backed up by video from inside and outside the station. Likewise, according to the suit, paramedics who treated him and medical records from Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital made no mention of him appearing drunk.

McHenry County prosecutors dismissed the DUI case in May. Now Zielinski is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from Cary and the two officers, alleging he was arrested without lawful justification and maliciously prosecuted.

Cary Village Administrator Jacob Rife said he had not yet seen the lawsuit and could not comment on pending litigation.

Personnel file

Batavia police officer Matthew White has been promoted to sergeant. He joined the department in 2001 after a tour of duty in the Navy and has served as a patrol officer, a detective, a school resource officer and patrol officer-in-charge. ... Also joining the sergeant ranks was Elgin's David Mendiola. He joined the department in 1999 and is assigned to day shift patrol. ... Happy retirement to Libertyville police Lt. Bill Kinast. In his 33 years with the force, he served as a detective, as a DARE officer and on the regional tactical team. He also started the department's bike unit, and he was a driving force behind its fitness center and wellness programs.

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