The Dawson County Sheriff’s Office recently unveiled its new drone program, which they say will assisting the agency in search and rescue, SWAT operations and officer training.
According to Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson, the sheriff’s office recently purchased two DJI drones, a Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual and a Matrice 200, for $34,209.94, and immediately began using the drones to develop and execute search warrants, and apprehend fleeing suspects.
Both drones are equipped with FLIR infrared technology, enabling officers in the field to view heat signatures, as well as RGB video which can provide a live bird’s eye view of incidents and operations.
“With the FLIR technology, day versus night makes no difference,” Matthew Blackstock, DCSO’s certified drone pilot said. “If you’re going into a situation where it’s dark and you can’t see, to have that peace of mind to say ‘well at least there are no visible heat signatures in this area,’ is huge.”
Blackstock received his Part 107 certification from the Federal Aviation Administration in 2016 and has received certification for Night Flight Operations. As a drone pilot, Blackstock assists by flying drones during search and rescue operations, officer training scenarios and on tactical operations including a recent SWAT engagement.
“The operation we had the other day, where we had assisted in serving the search warrant where we ended up recovering 50 some odd firearms from the convicted felon, that was the first opportunity we had to use the drone program,” Assistant SWAT Commander Lt. Jake Crawford said. “We got the drone up before we had anybody approaching the residence. We were able to get a view of the residence, real time intel of what’s going on, on the ground, right then and there at the target location.”
Crawford, who had been exposed to military drones while serving in Afghanistan, said he is sold on using drones in SWAT operations because of the extra level of safety it provides for his team and the community.
“If I’m putting a surveillance guy in the woods, now I’m down another guy,” Crawford said. “Anytime you put somebody on the ground you run the risk of injury or you also run the risk of them getting spotted and now you’re blown.”
The drones allow Crawford and his team to view video footage from a safe distance and plan a tactical approach in situations such as high risk warrant searches or barricaded individuals.
“If you have a subject that barricades inside of a vehicle now you’re able to get up to the vehicle and see what he’s doing, keeping eyes on him as you’re approaching, that’s huge,” Crawford said.
“You think about things like big warehouses, Home Depot, Walmart, different things like that… we now have the ability to go in. So should we have a barricaded subject, should we have someone that we need to get eyes on, we can put a drone inside the building now,” Johnson added. “From a tactical approach and from an officer safety perspective, as well as the safety for all of our community it just gives us a tool that we’ve never had before.”
It also allows for officers to be prepared for any unknown changes that could be detrimental to their operations including loose dogs putting K9 officers at risk, as well as tracking K9 officers who might have gotten out of their handler’s view during a chase.
According to Johnson, the drones were used in a limited capacity during the search for a missing hiker at Amicalola Falls, however inclement weather as well as a search and rescue helicopter were contributing factors to its limited usage.
The drone program, although new to Dawson County, is not new to law enforcement and emergency services. Lumpkin, Hall, Forsyth, Cherokee and Gwinnett counties have already been utilizing drone technology in their operations.
Though the program is in its early stages, officers are beginning to engage with the drones during training sessions as they learn to implement the new tool.
“Every one of them see the benefit of it and I think that’s really important, especially with our SWAT team to make sure that they know that we’re doing everything we can to keep them safe,” Blackstock said. “A lot of the training is me learning how they work and how we can work together. I’m a civilian so I don’t have necessarily the training that they have, so it’s good for us to be able to work together and figure out how to utilize the equipment to the best that they can put it in practice.”
Crawford wants to “heavily implement” the use of drones during SWAT training because the footage can help officers pinpoint their mistakes and find ways to improve their skills.
“In training, video is always a huge, huge thing because I can tell you you’re doing something wrong and it may not really click with you,” Crawford said, but after reviewing drone footage, “we can realize ‘okay maybe we need to train this aspect a little bit harder.’”