June 17, 2024

Keeping Officers and the Community Safe: The Role of Drones at Flagler County Sheriff’s Office

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Flagler County Drone Program Highlights

Introduction: A New Approach to Public Safety

At the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office (FCSO), a transformative shift has occurred in the approach to managing potentially volatile situations. Traditionally, the office had limited access to shared helicopter resources, which restricted rapid response capabilities and presented significant logistical challenges. Helicopters, while useful, required extensive coordination, were cost-prohibitive, and could not be deployed swiftly, especially during critical incidents where every second counts.

Recognizing these constraints, FCSO has embraced drone technology, a move that has dramatically enhanced its operational effectiveness and community safety. Drones, unlike helicopters, can be deployed immediately by officers already on the scene, offering a crucial advantage in emergencies. This capability enables FCS to conduct aerial surveillance without the significant costs and deployment delays associated with helicopters.

"If we needed to deploy our helicopter at that hour, we'd have to request mutual aid from another county, leading to a potential delay of about 20 minutes before aerial support could arrive. In contrast, our drones can be deployed immediately, providing crucial situational awareness much faster."

Jonathan Dopp

Commander, Flagler County Sheriff’s Office

Advantages of drones for aerial overwatch

Reflecting on the discussion with Commander Dopp, it's clear that drones offer a strategic advantage as the agency can:

  1. Improve operational effectiveness with rapid deployment capabilities, operational flexibility, and lower costs.
  2. Discreetly monitor suspects, which can be critical in managing dynamic situations safely and efficiently.
  3. Reduce the need for direct confrontations by better understanding the scene before sending officers in.

"Drones have proven indispensable for rapid response scenarios. Getting rapid aerial intelligence has drastically reduced our response times. For instance, what used to take an hour during a search operation now takes minutes."

Jonathan Dopp

Commander, Flagler County Sheriff’s Office

Drone deployment
Flagler County officer prepares Skydio drone for deployment at night.

Deployment Strategy: Patrol-Led Drone as First Responder (DFR)

At the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, drones significantly enhance how officers handle and approach confrontations with suspects and community members. The primary deployment of drones by patrol officers significantly improved their ability to provide overwatch and additional information to responding officers.

1. Tactical Overwatch and Perimeter Setting:

Drones are routinely deployed to gain a comprehensive aerial view of a scene before ground units fully engage. This aerial perspective is crucial for establishing safe perimeters and clearing crash and crime scenes, especially in hazardous environments such as highways that could pose additional risks to officers or public safety. By providing real-time footage from above, drones enable command centers to make informed, strategic decisions about resource deployment and incident management.

2. Increasing safety through proactive overwatch:

By using drones to conduct initial assessments and monitoring, the Sheriff’s Office has effectively minimized direct confrontations and the potential for escalated conflicts. This proactive approach safeguards officers and protects community members, as officers can resolve situations with less force and more strategic oversight.

Skydio Drone thermal
Skydio drone captures the scene of stolen vehicle as suspect surrenders.

3. Enhancing community and officer safety:

Implementing drone technology within patrol operations aligns with the office's commitment to increasing community and officer safety. Drones reduce the need for officers to enter potentially dangerous situations unassessed, thus decreasing the likelihood of confrontations, resulting in improved outcomes for all parties involved.

"Suspect unpredictability prompted us to deploy the drone to safeguard all parties involved, enhancing our situational awareness and enabling a more calculated response."

Jorge Fuentes

Sergeant, Flagler County Sheriff’s Office

Technological overview

The Flagler County Sheriff's Office primarily utilizes Skydio drones equipped with advanced autonomy capabilities, which are ideal for challenging environments where quick deployment and reliable performance are critical. Key features of Skydio drones include:

1. Advanced obstacle avoidance:

The Skydio drones have cutting-edge obstacle avoidance technology that allows them to navigate autonomously through complex environments. This feature is crucial during pursuits or when searching through densely wooded areas, as it prevents collisions and ensures continuous operation without manual intervention.

Suspect surrenders to drone
Skydio drone locates suspect with thermal camera at night.

2. Thermal Imaging for 24/7 overwatch:

These drones' thermal imaging capabilities are instrumental during nighttime operations. They can detect the heat signatures of individuals or animals, which is vital for locating suspects hiding in dark environments or missing persons in adverse weather conditions.

"Visibility was so limited we couldn't see more than five yards ahead due to the darkness. The drone quickly became our eyes in the field, enabling us to locate the suspect 20 yards away and significantly enhancing our operational capability."

Jonathan Dopp

Commander, Flagler County Sheriff’s Office

Rapid deployment of Skydio X2 at night by public safety patrol officer
Flagler County patrol officer deploys Skydio drone to locate a fleeing suspect at night.

3. Rapid Deployment:

Rapid deployment of Skydio drones is a game-changer in emergency scenarios. Officers can deploy these drones within minutes of arriving at a scene, providing immediate aerial views that help assess the situation and plan the necessary actions efficiently.

"Without the drones, we might have had to abandon the pursuit. The quick deployment and the drone’s capability to locate the suspect allowed us to apprehend him, which might not have been possible otherwise."

Jorge Fuentes

Sergeant, Flagler County Sheriff’s Office

Case Studies: Demonstrating value in real situations

Nighttime Construction Site Incident:

In an incident involving a construction site theft, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office deployed two Skydio drones, one to provide overwatch for the search team and another to search the construction site. They used the thermal camera to discreetly monitor the area, spotting two suspects attempting to steal construction equipment. The drone’s live feed helped officers on the ground approach the suspects strategically without alerting them, leading to a successful apprehension.

Skydio drone locates burglary suspects with thermal camera
Skydio drone locates burglary suspects with thermal camera.

“Since there wasn’t a forcible felony involved and we had lost visual contact, deploying a helicopter might have been excessive. We often have to make such calls based on the severity of the situation and the resources available from neighboring jurisdictions."

Jonathan Dopp

Commander, Flagler County Sheriff’s Office

Rescue of a Distressed Individual:

Another case involved a complex rescue operation where a drone quickly located a child who had gotten lost in a dense park late in the evening. The drone’s operator used real-time video to guide ground teams through the quickest route to the child, demonstrating the drone’s value in reducing search time and ensuring the child’s safety.

"Introducing drones into our operations has enhanced how we approach complex scenarios, especially in low-visibility conditions. Drones provide us with a critical overview and ensure that we can make informed decisions quickly and safely, significantly reducing the risks involved in direct engagements."

Jonathan Dopp

Commander, Flagler County Sheriff’s Office

Drone Training Program

The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office drone program was developed in collaboration with experts from Embry-Riddle University and Daytona Beach PD. Their robust training protocols emphasize the safe and responsible use of drones and are designed to scale as technology evolves, ensuring that officer proficiency grows with advancements.

Flagler County officer retrieves Skydio drone from patrol vehicle.
Flagler County officer retrieves Skydio drone from patrol vehicle.

Community Engagement and Transparency

Community trust is paramount. The Sheriff’s Office is committed to transparent operations and has actively engaged the public to educate them about responsible drone use.

"Utilizing drone technology has changed our strategy for managing potentially dangerous situations. By deploying drones, we can assess threats from a safe distance, allowing us to protect our officers and the community effectively. This approach has enhanced safety and fostered a deeper trust within the community we serve."

Jonathan Dopp

Commander, Flagler County Sheriff’s Office

Regulatory and Ethical Considerations

Privacy Concerns: One challenge has been addressing community concerns about privacy. The Sheriff’s Office has responded by implementing strict guidelines on when and how drones can be used, ensuring they are deployed only in situations where their benefits in public safety are clear.

Regulatory Compliance: Navigating FAA regulations is another ongoing challenge. The Sheriff’s Office works closely with legal experts to ensure all drone operations comply with current laws and maintains transparency with the FAA about their operations to preempt any legal issues.

Future Goals: Expanding Capabilities

The Sheriff’s Office is expanding its drone fleet and integrating advanced technologies, such as LTE connectivity, for enhanced real-time data transmission.

"Drones have been a significant force multiplier for our officers. This technology supports our tactical decisions and ensures that we maintain our commitment to safeguarding our community with the utmost respect for safety and privacy."

Jonathan Dopp

Commander, Flagler County Sheriff’s Office

Conclusion: Leading Change in Law Enforcement

The success of the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office drone program serves as a model for other law enforcement agencies. We encourage agencies, community leaders, and policymakers to support the expansion of drone technology in public safety, ensuring effective service while maintaining the highest standards of privacy and ethical responsibility.

"Looking ahead, we see drones playing an increasing role in law enforcement. We are exploring advancements that include better integration with real-time data systems and enhanced autonomous capabilities. These technologies promise further to revolutionize our operational tactics and community engagement strategies."

Jonathan Dopp

Commander, Flagler County Sheriff’s Office

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