ARLINGTON -- For about two years, the Arlington Police Department has been practicing with its two, small-battery, remote-controlled helicopters in a restricted area of the city, but not anymore.
The Federal Aviation Administration signed off on the department’s waiver late February to use the choppers, also known as drones, for missions.
Sgt. Chris Cook, a spokesman from the department, claims the equipment will be used for critical incidents, including major car accidents, missing persons, and chemical spills.
“We believe, really and truly, the return of investment on this program is going to be substantial, from locating our missing persons to clearing our freeways more quickly,” Cook said.
The department can fly the helicopters, which are equipped with cameras, south of I-30, but there are a few restrictions.
The equipment cannot be used at night. It has to fly low to the ground (within 400 feet) and the department has to notify air traffic control before takeoff. The aircraft can only fly about an hour, and the department has to get approval from the program’s administrator before it’s deployed.
“We actually have to give the latitude and longitude of where we are going to be, and so this is a clearly-defined incident perimeter,” Cook said.
The aircraft can only be operated by officers who passed a pilot's test. A small group of officers have been trained. An observer also has to be on scene. The aircraft must be in the team's line of sight at all times.
“If they can't see the equipment being flown, you can't fly it,” Cook said.
The program has its critics. One of the most outspoken is the American Civil Liberties Union.
“This allows for warrantless searches, and I think the Constitution is clear on that,” said Terri Burke, the Executive Director of the ACLU of Texas. “We are going to talk them to have really strong, solid, policies and practices that are absolute in their way of not violating constitutional protections.”
The department told News 8, it has implemented procedures to protect citizen's rights. It plans to demonstrate the helicopters in the coming weeks and wants to reach out to the ACLU.
“We do not use the equipment for routine patrol or any kind of surveillance,” Cook said. “We won’t use them in police pursuits either. If we need a search warrant to look in someone’s backyard now, this is the same protocol. We will need a search warrant for this.”
The department has been working with the FAA, the Justice Department and other agencies throughout the entire process. They hope its program serves as a model for other departments across the country.
Texas Representative, Lance Gooden (R-Terrell), introduced a bill that would make it illegal to use a drone to do surveillance on private property without a search warrant.