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Few Utah agencies report using drones last year

First Published      Last Updated May 19 2015 09:51 pm


Law enforcement » None of the flights covered in the report were for surveillance.

A new state report published online this week shows only three government agencies in Utah reported using drones over the past year.

The report compiled by the state Department of Public Safety is required under a 2014 law restricting police use of the unmanned aircraft without a warrant.

It shows most of the 28 reported flights from May 2014 to May 2015 were training flights or flights to take images and video for promotional reasons. None of them required a warrant.

The report doesn't include any use of drones as part of ongoing investigations. The law allows police to postpone reporting that use for a year.



Connor Boyack with the Libertas Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank in Utah that pushed for the requirements, said Tuesday that he had not seen the report yet. Boyack said that because the technology can easily be used to invade someone's privacy, it is important for the public to keep tabs on how and why law enforcement use the aircraft.

Fifteen of the flights reported during the past year were conducted by the state Division of Emergency Management, which is part of the Utah Department of Public Safety. The Emergency Management division used the aircraft to gather images for video projects showing the scenes of past disasters where the division has worked, including a massive rock slide in North Salt Lake last August that demolished one home.

A drone is helpful in the aftermath of something like a large earthquake, where officials need inspect damage to buildings around the city but traveling streets may be difficult, Emergency Management spokesman Joe Dougherty said.

The Utah Transit Authority, which has its own police officers, reported making three drone flights for training and to document a charity event.

The police department in the Utah County city of Lindon was the only agency that reported using a drone for law enforcement work. Their small helicopter-like drone was used seven times to document car chases, accidents and fires. Three other uses were training flights.

Police Chief Cody Cullimore said his city, nestled under Mount Timpanogos, often gets reports of lost hikers, and police wanted the drone primarily to help with search efforts. "It can take hours to hike up there and look for them all over," Cullimore said. "We can fly the mountain in 10 minutes."

Police don't plan to use the aircraft for surveillance but have used it to help neighboring police agencies in their investigations, Cullimore said.

Last September, the Lindon Police Department flew the drone to help officers in Saratoga Springs get aerial images of the scene where 22-year-old Darrien Hunt, wielding a samurai sword, ran from police before being shot by officers.

Both the Division of Emergency Management and Lindon Police said they recently stopped flying their drones after learning they needed a special waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Cullimore said it is a lengthy process, and he suspects that may be why more Utah police have not yet reported using the devices.

In Salt Lake County, the Unified Police Department has two broken drones that were used more than a year ago to take pictures of car accidents. Unified spokesman Lt. Justin Hoyal said there is no plan to fix them at this point because the department is instead using a laser scanner mounted on the ground that better suits the department's needs.

The Box Elder County Sheriff's Office has a drone for search and rescue uses, but it did not report using the device during the last year. Messages left with the sheriff's office were not returned.

 

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