Civil asset forfeitures pay for police technology

MPD will use a drone as an investigative tool, paid for through civil asset forfeitures. Photo by Mason Callejas

The Maricopa City Police Department is raising its game, technologically speaking.

MPD will soon acquire a state-of-the-art unmanned aerial system (UAS), poising them to become the only agency in Pinal County to enlist a drone to help with investigations and public safety administration.

During a presentation to the Maricopa City Council Sept. 5, concerns were raised by city officials about the cost of the UAS, a DJI Matrice 600.

Chief Steve Stahl said the machine comes with a price tag just north of $20,000. But, he said, the city need not worry about the cost.

Paid for entirely by civil asset forfeitures – the funds seized during investigations involving drugs, organized crime and other illicit activities – the machine cost taxpayers absolutely nothing.

“You can thank your criminals,” Stahl said.

Though similar in nature to the smaller aerial drones becoming popular with photographers and filmmakers, MPD’s model will have a bit more to it, Public Information Officer Ricardo Alvarado said.

The drone will be equipped with both thermal imaging (FLIR) and high-definition full-spectrum (color) cameras, he said. The machine would also be able to carry about 10-12 pounds of payload, meaning it could be used not only to locate a stranded hiker, but also to deliver life-saving water and food.

Laws surrounding drone usage have become stricter since their use has become more prevalent.

The Federal Aviation Administration has established regulations which prevent it from being weaponized by being equipped with firearms or explosives. And, for safety reasons, they also prohibit it from flying directly over crowds.

“We can’t fly over people, we can fly around people,” Alvarado said of its ability to zoom in and observe from a distance.

Fourth amendment laws will also still be applicable. In order to use it for surveillance, Stahl said, “we have to have a search warrant.”

Furthermore, any video recorded is subject to public records laws.

If the situation calls for it, Stahl added, the machine could be used to search for suspects or missing persons.

The same day as MPD’s presentation to council, an extensive search was conducted for a missing boy. The boy was found after about four-and-a-half hours.

“If we had had this system available, we would have found him in like an hour and a half,” Stahl said.

The most common use of the drone, Alvarado said, will likely be to capture detailed aerial photographs of collisions and accidents. This, he said, helps with investigations by shortening the time spent photographing the scene and, in turn, expediting the removal of wreckage and easing traffic congestion.

Other FAA regulations limit its flight ceiling to 400 feet above the ground or nearest structure, and limit its distance three miles, or less depending on visibility.

MPD also will have a special waiver allowing it to be used at night, something most drone users cannot do.

The department will also allow nearby agencies to enlist the drone’s help when necessary, including Customs and Border Patrol.

However, Stahl stressed, the drone would by no means be used to assist with immigration enforcement.


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