Eye in the sky: See how more police departments are using drones

PEPPER PIKE, Ohio --  With an armed suspect on the loose after police said he held a woman and child at gunpoint at a home on Farnhurst Road in Lyndhurst early Monday, police turned to a drone to search from above.

It’s one example of how more police departments are using drones for everything from search and rescue missions to SWAT standoffs.

The Valley Enforcement Group, which is comprised of 15 east side departments, began its unmanned aircraft systems -- or drone -- team four years ago and it has doubled in size since then. It now has six different drones.

“It has definitely elevated our game,” said South Russell Police Officer Todd Pocek, who has been a drone pilot for about a year.

A drone was used to monitor for hot spots after a fire at Fernway Elementary School in Shaker Heights last week and after a fire at an East Cleveland garbage dump in November.

“We felt that by operating a camera from a different platform we could accomplish a lot more, reduce manpower needs and free up manpower to handle other elements of the situation,” said Pepper Pike Police Chief Joe Mariola, who heads the Valley Enforcement Group UAS team.

“With this tool we can stand off at a distance, approach the structure safely without putting an individual in harm's way.”

The group’s drones are different sizes to serve different functions.

From a safe distance, police can monitor hazmat or hostage situations, search for a missing person or suspect, and investigate fires or car crashes.

Pocek said the overhead vantage point enabled investigators to see new evidence in a recent car crash on I-271.

“We were able to identify some evidence we never would've seen with our normal walking standpoint,” he said.

One of the drones is equipped with a FLIR infrared camera that detects heat changes, allowing operators to potentially see the body heat from a suspect or missing person.

The group has 14 operators certified to fly the drones who go through more than forty hours of training.

“All the pilots will go through a basic private pilot ground school,” said Drew Ferguson, President of PHASTAR Corporation, which trains the operators. He is also a Chagrin Falls firefighter.

Amid privacy concerns, the American Civil Liberties Union has recommended usage restrictions, image retention restrictions, public notice of drone policies and audits of drone use.

The Valley Enforcement Group has a privacy policy outlining when the drones can be used and steps to protect rights. It notes the unit will not conduct random surveillance and “operators and observers will ensure and will be held accountable for ensuring that operations of the UAS intrude to a minimal extent upon the citizens.”

“We’re not here to infringe on anyone's privacy or rights of privacy,” Mariola said.