One afternoon, I accompanied Heather West, the detective who had scoured gray vans in the license plate database, and Josh Terry, the analyst who spotted the kidnapper with the Cowboys jacket, to do fly a drone over a park adjoining a city-owned golf course on the outskirts of town. West was in charge; Terry followed the path of the drone in the sky and maintained “situational awareness” for the crew; another detective focused on the iPad showing what the drone was seeing, as opposed to where and how it was flying.
Of all the gadgets under the hood of the Real-Time Crime Center, drones are perhaps the most regulated, subject to safety (but not privacy) regulations and Federal Aviation Administration scrutiny. In Ogden, next door to a large Air Force base, these rules are compounded by flight restrictions covering most of the city. The police force had to obtain exemptions to take off its drones; it took two years to develop policies and get the necessary approvals to start flying.
The police department bought its drones for the purpose of handling large public events or complex incidents such as hostage taking. But, as Dave Weloth quickly noticed, “the more we use our drones, the more use cases we find.” At the center of real-time crime, Terry, who has a Masters in Geographic Information Technology, had taken me around the city with footage collected from recent drone flights, clicking on cloud-shaped spots, assembled from the composite photographs of the drone, which dotted the Ogden map.
Over 21st Street and Washington, he zoomed in on the site of a fatal crash caused by a motorcycle running a red light. A bloodied sheet covered the driver’s body, his legs spread out on the sidewalk, surrounded by a circle of fire engines. Within minutes, the drone’s cameras had scanned the scene and created a centimeter-accurate 3D model, replacing the intricate choreography of location markers and fixed ground cameras that sometimes left major intersections closed for hours after a fatal collision. .
When the area was hit by a powerful windstorm last september, Terry flew a drone over huge piles of downed trees and brush gathered by the city. When county officials saw the resulting volumetric analysis – 12,938 cubic yards – that would be submitted as part of a claim to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, they asked the police department to do the same. service for two neighboring towns. Ogden drones have also been used to locate hot spots after wildfires, locate missing people, and fly over raids by SWAT teams.
This flight was more routine. When I pulled into the parking lot, two officers from the Ogden Community Policing Unit watched as West steered the craft over a dense stand of Gambel oak, then hovered over a triangular log fort on a hill a few hundred yards away. Although they never encountered people during drone sweeps in the area, trash and makeshift structures were commonplace. Once the CRTC had identified the location of any encampment, community services officers would walk to get a closer look. “We get a lot of positive feedback from runners, hikers,” said one officer. After a recent visit to a camp near a pond on 21st Street, he and the county social workers accompanying him found accommodation for two people they had met there. When cleaning the camps, the police “also try to connect [people] with the services they need, ”Weloth said. The ministry recently hired a full-time homeless outreach coordinator to assist. “We cannot get out of this problem,” he said, comparing the department’s efforts to prevent the emergence of new camps to “pushing the water up”.