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Who’s watching police drones?

New technology is changing the way policing is done.

PHOENIX — New technology is changing the way policing is done. Drone video captured officers fan out at a cotton field near Riggs Road and Hunt Highway.

Their flashlights pan back and forth looking for two armed robbery suspects that took off. They’re hiding somewhere in the field, but police can see them.

It’s dark, the field is large and the cotton covers up everything.

Until Gilbert police launch one of their drones equipped with an infrared camera. In a few seconds, police can see both suspects lying in the cotton, the only warm spots in a cold night. 

One suspect puts his hands up, surrendering to the drone.

Watch Gilbert police's video:

Drones Across the Valley

Police departments across the Valley have their own drone programs, and 12 News has discovered they fly them more than most people think.

Some departments fly them hundreds of times a year for everything from suspect searches to SWAT team surveillance to documenting car crash scenes.

Chandler, Scottsdale, Tempe, Gilbert, the Department of Public Safety and the Maricopa County Sheriffs Office all have drone programs.

Earlier this year, Mesa PD used a small drone to fly inside a house where a stabbing suspect was barricaded. The drone flew inside to give the SWAT team another set of eyes inside without putting officers at risk.

In Tempe, police were serving a search warrant for a drug case in one of the high-rise towers along Mill Avenue. When police knocked on the door, the drone saw someone open the balcony door and throw a bag down to the roof of an adjacent building.

Watch the video from Tempe:

“There was no way someone on the street would have caught that,” Tempe Police Sgt. John Giltinan said.

Giltinan runs the drone program for Tempe. They have a fleet of drones of various sizes, including one that provided video from above the massive train derailment at Tempe Town Lake in 2020.

“We were able to zoom right in and be able to say this piece of the bridge was still on fire, this piece was still a hotspot,” Giltinan said.

Privacy Concerns

But the prevalence of police department drones worries some privacy advocates who want more restrictions on their use.

Matthew Guariglia with the Electronic Freedom Foundation said drones are different than police helicopters because of the potential of the technology.

“A big fear we have is that somebody will try to fly a drone over a protest equipped with a really advanced facial recognition software,” Guariglia said.

That would theoretically give police an instant list of everyone that was protesting. And if that protest happened to be about the police, Guariglia said, that list could be a problem.

That technology does exist, although it’s very expensive and difficult to implement.

Still, privacy advocates don’t want police departments having these tools unrestricted.

Video from Tempe police using a drone during a call:

No Warrant Needed

Right now there’s no law that says police have to have a warrant to use a drone for police work.

Tempe Police said they do seek a warrant when they plan to fly a drone, but don’t when it’s an emergency situation.

Every pilot does have to be licensed by the FAA, but there is no special license or requirement for law enforcement.

“A warrant requirement would be a big way to start,” Guariglia said, “in the sense that you have to actually go to a judge and get a warrant that a drone is needed for an investigation.”

Watch how new technology helped police end a pursuit in Arizona: