Indiana police departments want drones. There’s just one big problem.

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Brandon Chordas and Shafter Baker, two deputies with the Noble County Sheriff Department, are a two-man drone team. Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar

Indiana’s two largest police departments both want drones; one for crowd surveillance at major gatherings Downtown, the other to monitor traffic at events such as the Indiana State Fair.

There’s just one problem. Both uses appear to be against the law in Indiana.

As the cost of drones drops and police departments rush to acquire the latest technology, officers are finding it difficult to navigate a tangled web of federal and state policies. They also face ethical questions. How will the community respond to cameras in the skies? And what are the appropriate uses?

Across the country, more than 340 public safety agencies either have drones or the authorization to fly them, according to an April report from the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. More purchases occurred last year than all previous years combined, the report found.

And when it comes to finding ways to use them, well, the sky is the limit — which has created some concerns.

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In North Dakota, police have authority to attach nondeadly weapons, such as stun guns and devices to fire rubber bullets, which drew a rebuke from the American Civil Liberties Union.

In Connecticut, the state legislature briefly considered a bill this year that would have allowed police agencies to attach deadly weapons.

But most drones are simply strapped with cameras, giving police high-definition pictures from the sky.

At least 10 Indiana police agencies now own drones, and more are considering the possibility. Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department hopes to identify funding in the 2018 budget, Chief Bryan Roach told IndyStar, to begin deploying “in a very limited scope.” Top officials at the department said crowd surveillance was one possible benefit.

Indiana State Police also are currently researching drones, a spokesman said, adding traffic control was one of the goals.

But here in Indiana — which is among 17 other states with similar laws, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures report — a police department needs a warrant to use a drone, except in a few circumstances and in emergency situations.

That means IMPD most likely wouldn’t be able to fly near large gatherings, providing a bird’s-eye view to look for wrongdoing, unless officials feared a terrorist attack or expected a crime. Nor could state police watch for traffic snarls outside big events. When told of the restrictions, both departments acknowledged they needed to conduct more research, and said they would only use drones for legitimate purposes allowed by the law.

Eric Koch, who as a state representative authored Indiana’s drone laws in 2014 and 2016, said the laws add judicial oversight, and err on the side of privacy.

“And that’s an expectation among the public,” said Koch, a Republican who’s now a state senator.


DRONE CATCHES A HIDING SUSPECT

In March, in the northeast corner of the state, Indiana saw perhaps the best example of a drone’s policing power.

There, in rural Noble County, sheriff’s deputies were hunting for a man in the dark. He had refused to pull over for a traffic stop, then crashed as he sped away, and ran into nearby cornfields, wetlands and woods.

Deputies set up a perimeter. They first hunted for the man using K-9s, but the dogs lost the scent.

Then the Noble County Sheriff’s Department’s two-man drone team launched a DJI Inspire 1 unmanned aerial vehicle with a thermal imaging camera that picks up heat signatures and relays images to a hand-held monitor. It displays a person as a bright white figure on a gray landscape.

They quickly found the suspect walking alone in a cornfield.

The craft hovered at 200 feet, chasing the man as he continued fleeing from police. The drone operators radioed other deputies, telling them to follow the drone’s lights to the man.

Soon, he was in handcuffs.

Without the drone’s aerial view, “he probably would have gotten away that night,” said Deputy Brandon Chordas, who aptly named his drone Con Air, after the 1997 Nicolas Cage movie about an aircraft transferring convicts to a prison. “We were giddy.”

In all, the mission took about 20 minutes, the deputies said.

Drones also helped the deputies locate a runaway teen in about five minutes. And they needed only 25 minutes to find the body of a man who died while hunting for mushrooms alone in the woods.

“What used to take hours now takes minutes,” Chordas said.

The department, which originally faced local criticism for buying the drones, decided to post the video of the March incident on Facebook. The reactions and comments were overwhelmingly supportive.

“One can RUN, but they can’t HIDE!!” one person wrote.

“Now THAT is a good investment in taxpayer dollars,” another wrote.


SAVING MONEY AND LIVES

Drones help officers reconstruct major crashes and provide aerial photos of sweeping crime scenes. They also can aid during SWAT situations or natural disasters.

“It’s a life-saving device,” said Jim White, a public safety senior lecturer at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and former Indiana state trooper.

The Warrick County Sheriff’s Department in southwest Indiana has used its drones about 40 times so far, Chief Deputy Michael Wilder said, mostly at crash scenes.

“As the technology advances, we’ll find more and more ways to use them,” Wilder said.

So far, the Valparaiso Police Department in Worthwest Indiana has used its drone only a few times, most recently to help another agency search for evidence following a murder. Valparaiso officers also have searched for a dementia patient who walked away, and for a suicidal person who needed help.

IMPD sees a lot of potential in a drone, said Sgt. Kendale Adams, spokesman for the department, but finding money isn’t easy. Once the everyday needs of the department are funded, he said, “we never have a whole lot of money” left for things like emerging technology.

Drones can range from a few hundred dollars for an inexpensive model to hundreds of thousands of dollars for the most advanced, said White, whose IUPUI class recently delivered a research project on drones to state police.

The Inspire 1 appears to be the most popular drone for Indiana officers, costing about $15,000 when you include an expensive thermal imaging camera.

“It’s absolutely amazing what you can do with it as far as viewing in the dark,” said Phil Rochon, Valparaiso IT officer. His drone also has a parachute that automatically deploys if the device were to unexpectedly drop from the sky after a bird attack or a mechanical failure.

Drones can, however, offer long-term savings to a big department such as IMPD. The department expects the use of drones to cut down their reliance on an aging helicopter, which costs several hundred dollars per hour to fly.

Today’s drones couldn’t completely replace helicopters, though. Rochon noted the maximum flight time on an Inspire 1, which is limited by battery life, is 18 minutes. The drone won’t work in temperatures below 14 degrees, and winds of 22 miles per hour will ground the unit, Rochon said.

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At least 10 police agencies in Indiana now use drones. (Ryan Martin/IndyStar) Wochit


PUBLIC POLICY AND TECHNOLOGY

Many of these uses are clearly allowed under an Indiana law that was adopted after an IndyStar and USA TODAY investigation found Indiana State Police had acquired a Stringray, a tool used to collect cellphone records. Drones were wrapped into the 2014 bill.

Police may use drones for search-and-rescue efforts, to record crash scenes, and to help in emergencies, such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

In Indiana, though, just about every other use for police requires a warrant.

The purpose of Indiana’s law was to protect people from unreasonable searches that might not have been anticipated when the Fourth Amendment was adopted to protect citizens’ privacy.

“Without that law, the Fourth Amendment doesn’t protect us as much as one might think it would,” said Shawn Boyne, a law professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. “The major cases coming from the Supreme Court … generally permit aerial surveillance.”

States without a similar law, Boyne said, are forced to grapple with issues involving privacy, and how police exercise their authority to deploy drones. Would certain neighborhoods be targeted routinely? What discretion does an officer have?

Indiana’s law answers many of those questions, she said, though she noted parts of the law are still unclear. For example, what would happen if police were to use a drone illegally, without entering the images they capture into evidence in a criminal case?

“Really the drone issue comes up mainly if they try to introduce information into a criminal proceeding,” Boyne said. “And then that’s where the whole Fourth Amendment protections are triggered.”

In addition to state laws, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a set of guidelines that has resulted in a hodgepodge of practices and certification levels.

The Tippecanoe County Sheriff’s Department, for example, isn’t authorized to fly at night right now, while the Valparaiso Police Department is.

Multiple officers contacted by IndyStar said becoming certified was confusing. One called the process “extremely complicated.” Another said studying for a test was like “reading a foreign language.”

After buying a drone before most other departments, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department decided to abandon its program a few years ago.

The reason? Too many stipulations, and too much “red tape,” Maj. Louie Koch said.


GAINING TRUST

Understanding the rules is one step for law enforcement; making sure a community trusts a police department to use a drone responsibly is another, said Jim Bueermann, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Police Foundation and a former police chief in California.

He pointed to Community Policing & Unmanned Aircraft Systems, a guidebook prepared by the Police Foundation on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice. The report references instances of community backlash against drone programs in Seattle, San Jose, Calif., and Los Angeles in 2013 and 2014.

To begin, Bueermann said, departments should meet with local citizens to determine what uses would be considered appropriate.

“What is not acceptable in Indianapolis might be acceptable in Dallas,” he said. “Each community is going to view these things differently.”

Officers across Indiana have heard concerns from citizens, too. Some are fearful that drones will be used to peek into their homes and backyards, or to clock them speeding down the highway.

Officers interviewed by IndyStar shook off such concerns, by noting their respect for privacy.

“We’re not just going to be throwing them in the air willy-nilly, flying over people’s backyards to see if they’re growing marijuana,” Indiana State Police Capt. David Bursten said. “We’re going to have to have a warrant — as we should — and be able to articulate why we’d be flying in an area.”

Adams, the IMPD sergeant, said his department was not aware of Indiana’s warrant requirement, but would seek greater clarity before buying a drone.

“Obviously, we’d follow the law,” he said.

There may be some disagreement about that law, however. Adams noted an Indiana exception that allows officers to use drones without a warrant if there’s a “substantial likelihood of a terrorist attack.” Some gatherings Downtown, such as political marches with potential for conflict, could meet that threshold, Adams said.

Ultimately, the courts may need to clarify such uses — unless the law is updated as technology evolves.

Koch, the lawmaker who wrote Indiana’s drone laws, said he’d be willing to discuss changes with law enforcement in the future. After all, he worked to update the law in 2016 to allow officers to use drones at crash scenes, after receiving feedback from police.

But as more Indiana agencies buy drones, Koch noted that the state hasn’t seen any instances of abuse: “Maybe the bill is doing its job.”

Call IndyStar reporter Ryan Martin at (317) 444-6294. Follow him on Twitter: @ryanmartin and on Facebook.

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