When the Miami-Dade Police Department acquired two $50,000 drones back in 2009, it was big news. The agency was the first in the nation to get a permit from the FAA to fly the devices, which looked a lot like flying garbage cans.
Despite the fact that the expensive devices have apparently never actually been used in action by MDPD thanks to tight restrictions on their operation, drones are no longer novelties for local cops. In fact, at least 347 public safety agencies in the U.S. have purchased them, according to new research from the Center for the Study of the Drone, including 11 in Florida. Local law enforcement agencies are the main buyers.
"More acquisitions took place in 2016 than in the previous years combined, and the pace of acquisitions shows no signs of slowing down," writes Dan Gettinger, the study's author.
In South Florida, the study found drones have been snapped up by the Miami Beach Police, Miami-Dade Schools Police and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
Why exactly do school cops need drones? It's not clear — a spokesperson for MDCPS hasn't returned a message from New Times about the purchase. According to research by the center, which is based at New York's Bard College, the department has purchased a DJI Phantom, a small, camera-mounted flier that retails for between $500 - $1200.
Elsewhere in the state, drones have been purchased by agencies big and small: the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, Crestview Police Department, Estero Fire Rescue, Madeira Beach Fire Department, Martin County Fire Rescue, Orange County Sheriff’s Office, Polk County Sheriff’s Office and Volusia County Sheriff’s Office have all bought remotely controlled fliers.
The drones MDPD got its hands on nearly 10 years ago were military-grade, but the department has struggled to find a ready use for them. Thanks to flight and operation restrictions, the cops were only cleared to use them in very specific situations, such as when a gunman is holed up in a tall building or parking garage.
The center's study found that today, most law enforcement agencies are going with more affordable options marketed to consumers like the Phantom. Cops have used the cheaper drones to identify illegal fireworks displays, assist firefighters, and locate suspects and runaways, the center found.
"The same small unmanned aircraft systems that have been popular among hobbyists and commercial users are now sought after by a growing number of agencies throughout the United States," Gettinger writes.
There’s a lot of healthy skepticism around the devices, with some fearing they could be used to spy on residents. In 2013, Florida passed a law barring law enforcement from using drones to gather “evidence or information” without a warrant.
Still, police are stocking up on the devices. The center says while its study is the most comprehensive, publicly available accounts of the department's using drones, it's based only on media reports and public records, and shouldn't be considered complete.
Update, 12 p.m.: John Schuster, a spokesman for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, says school police use the drones to get an overhead perspective of officers' response when conducting drills.
"The intent is to ensure that they handle situations in the most efficient manner possible," he says."