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Illinois State Police say drones are a success

The only law enforcement agency licensed by the FAA in Missouri or Illinois to operate drones uses two UASs units.
Provided by Illinois State Police
The only law enforcement agency licensed by the FAA in Missouri or Illinois to operate drones uses two UASs units.

The Illinois State Police drones have flown nearly 50 missions since May, and the department says they are fulfilling the goal of making police work more efficient.

The state police was the first law enforcement agency in Illinois to get permission to use unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles. They’ve mostly been deployed at accident scenes, for a total of 48 hours of flight time.

"Measurements that traditionally took several hours can be reduced to about 15-20 minutes, to deploy the UAS technology, capture aerial photos and accurately document those scenes," said Capt. Matt Davis, the commander of the Illinois State Police’s crime scene services command. "By opening up those roadways sooner, we reduce the possibility for secondary crashes, or additional property damage or injury that can occur on the roadways."

The Illinois General Assembly approved legislation in 2013 that restricts when the drones can be used without a warrant. Footage gathered by drones has to be destroyed within 30 days, except in certain circumstances, and its existence can’t be disclosed unless there’s reasonable suspicion that the footage contains evidence of a criminal activity or is relevant to an ongoing investigation.

Ed Yohnka, the communications director for the ACLU of Illinois, told St. Louis Public Radio in May that it was important to get the restrictions in place before the drones were used.

"That way, you weren’t trying to scale back or limit what someone was already doing, or accusing them of acting in bad faith," he said. "It was a discussion about how we ensure that, as technologies emerge,  individual privacy is being protected." 

Davis, with the Illinois State Police, said the restrictions have been workable.

"They haven’t represented any impediments for us, and it allows us to strike a proper balance with efficiency and privacy and deploy a real effective tool to help the public," he said.

Davis said the deployment of the drones is limited more by federal restrictions and the availability of resources. The vehicles are based in Springfield and southern Illinois, but are deployed statewide. Davis said the department hopes to expand the fleet to reduce response time.

Federal records show the state police remain the only law enforcement agency in the state with permission to operate drones. No agencies in Missouri have yet received clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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