Drones becoming more common at Tampa Bay area law enforcement agencies

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If your local law enforcement agency doesn’t have drones now, there’s a good chance they will soon.

The small flying machines are being sent into the air to help officers catch crooks and solve crimes.

Drones have certainly gone from a fun novelty or toy, to a valuable part of the law enforcement effort.

When bad guys try to hide or run away, a police chopper can zero in from above and direct ground units to an exact spot.

Sometimes, it takes the sensitive nose of a K-9 deputy to make the capture.

Now more and more law enforcement are getting involved with drones. It gives them a perspective they’ve never had before.

The Clearwater Police Department has two drones in its arsenal. They provide another set of eyes, in places a chopper cannot go.  

“Really, what we’re using them for is going to be for missing persons. We’ve used them several times when we’ve had either elderly folks or recently we had a young lady out in the water,” said Clearwater Police Officer David Nugent.

That case ended tragically, with the swimmer’s body found a mile west of Pier 60.

A smaller drone, like one also flown by Clearwater officers, can help protect lives by flying into a building to see if it’s safe.

“Instead of the officers going in and possibly getting into a gun fight, we could lob gas in there or we could give them maybe another opportunity to come out,” said Officer Nugent.

Sarasota deputies recently launched a larger kind of drone. It will be used for disaster response or missing people and can be in the air in a a flash.  

“We can get into the air almost immediately and be able to check out locations of interest,” said Capt. Kevin MCelyea.

In Polk County, deputies are being equipped with drones as part of its “Aerial Response Team.” The agency used one in July to monitor a home in Haines City, where an accused double murderer eventually killed himself.

A deputy watched from the safety of his cruiser.

For all agencies using drones right now, privacy is a big concern and it’s written into state law.  

“We don’t want to use this and will not use this and cannot legally use this for a patrol function just to see what’s happening or what may happen,” said Sheriff Grady Judd.

While a chopper is very costly to operate, drones are much cheaper.

“When you have this helicopter, the fuel cost, the maintenance cost, the manpower cost, there’s a lot involved in that,” said Officer Nugent.

Drones pose much less of a risk to the public and pilots.  

“We can also use it for looking for suspects in certain areas. We can monitor one of our K-9s tracking,” said Officer Nugent.

Soon, they’ll be much more common, as more law enforcement agencies deploy drones.

“I think it’s a great program and I’m really proud to be a part of it,” said Nugent.

There are state and federal regulations that limit what law enforcement can do with drones. They’re not supposed to be used for surveillance unless there is a search warrant.

Some agencies take that one step further. Polk County doesn’t allow recording the video feed.

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