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Carroll County Sheriff’s Office: Drones used for crash, crime scene viewing — not ‘Big Brother’ surveillance

Carroll County Sheriff’s Office: Drones used for crash, crime scene viewing — not ‘Big Brother’ surveillance
Det. Doug Reese, right, who is an FAA licensed drone pilot for the Carroll County Sheriff's Office, shows the interchangeable thermal imaging camera of the agency's Yuneec H520 drone to Mark Coakley, left, of Westminster during the second annual Big Drone Event, a production of the Carroll Technology Council in conjunction with Carroll Community College in Westminster Thursday, July 11, 2019. The sheriff's office drone is equipped with a thermal imaging camera that can detect heat signatures even in darkness. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

In the first years of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office drone program, deputies have used the airborne devices to get a bird’s eye perspective in specific situations — but not as a public surveillance tool, a spokesman said.

Since 2017, the Sheriff’s Office has been primarily using the drone program for crash reconstruction, and overhead and crime scene photography and videography, operators of the Sheriff’s Office drones told the Times.

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The funding for the purchase of the drones came from the 2016 State Homeland Security Grant Program Funding, Lt. Christopher Orwig said.

The Carroll County Sheriff's Office is seen flying a drone over the crime scene at Daltile at 1470 Progress Way in Eldersburg. One person was wounded in an early morning shooting. (Mike Jordan/for Carroll County Times)
The Carroll County Sheriff's Office is seen flying a drone over the crime scene at Daltile at 1470 Progress Way in Eldersburg. One person was wounded in an early morning shooting. (Mike Jordan/for Carroll County Times) (Mike Jordan)

“The initial costs for the UAS/Drone program was $20,130.23 which covered the purchase of 4 drones, additional support equipment for the drones, licensing and training,” Orwig said in an email. “The [federal fiscal year] 2016 Homeland Security Grant Program paid for all of the initial costs associated with the program. Since that time, a yearly operation cost of approximately $1,000 for insurance and $150 per pilot every two years has been added to the Sheriff’s office operating budget.”

Orwig said the Sheriff’s Office does not need local government approval "other than the fact that we established the policies and procedures within the agency, which is a government agency.” The Sheriff’s Office had the county attorney look over the policies and procedures "and went from there,” Orwig said.

The Carroll County Sheriff's Office is seen flying a drone over the crime scene at Daltile at 1470 Progress Way in Eldersburg. One person was wounded in an early morning shooting. (Mike Jordan/for Carroll County Times)
The Carroll County Sheriff's Office is seen flying a drone over the crime scene at Daltile at 1470 Progress Way in Eldersburg. One person was wounded in an early morning shooting. (Mike Jordan/for Carroll County Times) (Mike Jordan)

The Sheriff’s Office currently has four drones and five deputies qualified to use them. The five deputies have been certified through the Federal Aviation Administration Part 107 license, and the deputies must get recertified every two years.

Det. Doug Reese, one of the five deputies qualified to operate a drone, has been called out for two main instances to deploy the drones.

“For me, it’s been a lot of getting called out for missing persons, flying it in places that aren’t safe to put people in — that’s what I’ve been called out to do,” Reese said.

Master Deputy Mike Prushinski, one of the five deputies qualified to operate a drone, flies them as part of the crash reconstruction unit with the Sheriff’s Office.

“We primarily use it for gathering scene evidence, overall pictures, to get that perspective that we can’t get any other way,” Prushinski said. “It’s something that we can have it easily deployable and get it there fast to the scene from a patrol perspective. So, a [Maryland State Police] helicopter may be available but may be further away or on a medical evacuation or something that’s pressing, we can get these in the air, get them out quick for missing persons and have that happen quickly.”

Sgt. Fred Timms, one of the five deputies qualified to operate a drone, is also with the crash construction unit.

“We use it mostly for gathering photography, after a crash has been done,” Timms said. “We capture a lot more roadway evidence with flying the drone over and looking at the photograph. So, afterwards, we’re actually using a live video of the crash scene to pick up gouge marks, tire marks — things that you might not necessarily have seen by just using a ladder or like a ladder truck.”

The program originally started mid-2017 but really started running between the fall of 2017 and the winter of 2018, Orwig said.

The drones are commonly used to help search for missing people, something that has been done as recently as last week.

“It just gives you a wider angle and view from above,” Orwig said.

According to Orwig, the Sheriff’s Office used a drone in March to assist the Department of Natural Resources in searching for people who potentially engaged in illegal baiting/hunting. Thanks to the help of the drone, the Sheriff’s Office was able to find the suspects.

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“That overhead angle is something that people and juries and defense and the public are used to seeing now,” Prushinski said. “So, we want to be able to show that and take people to a scene. If we take you over to a crash scene and you can see that as it sat when we got there, it’s a really impactful image to be able to show and be able to describe it and take measurements off of it.”

In 2018, according to Sheriff’s Office data, the department used the drones for training and demonstration 84.1% of the time, crash/crime scene videography 2.8%, missing person/search and rescue 2.8%, searching for a suspect in a crime 3.7%, and all other uses 6.6%.

The Carroll Tech Council held a Big Drone Event on July 11 that the Sheriff’s Office spoke and answered questions about drone use within the department.

One attendee asked about drone use, rules and regulations, which can be a concern for people monitored by the drones.

“I know a lot of people have been concerned as Big Brother is watching, they’re putting up the drone and they’re going to be watching,” Orwig said. “That was part of our policy review and the citizens’ involvement in the coming up with our policy review or policies ... I’m not putting that drone up and flying around your neighborhood to catch you doing something illegal in your backyard.”

According to Orwig, flight information of drones is available for release to the public when is doesn’t pertain to an ongoing investigation.

“The drones provide another tool in our tool belt to accomplish investigations. The cost to the public is much less than that of a helicopter,” Orwig said in an email. “Additionally, it’s an added resource to use that can be a force multiplier for searching vast areas with less manpower.”

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