OnPolicing Blog

Drones help augment a police department’s capabilities to fight crime

April 28, 2017

Jarrod Burguan

Chief Jarrod Burguan

San Bernardino Police Department, CA

Jarrod Burguan

Chief Jarrod Burguan

San Bernardino Police Department, CA

These days, the term “drone” elicits all sorts of emotional reactions.

Some see it as fun, a hobby, a chance to explore a world above the ground that you couldn’t do previously without spending a lot of money. Others see it as a viable operational tool that can be used under numerous work opportunities.

And still more see it as an infringement on privacy at best and a militarized Big Brother at its worst. I get it — I understand all of them. In a way, not one of those reactions is wrong. Just as is the case with all innovations, the potential is there for drones to be any and all of those things.

But when used responsibly and ethically, drones can be a tremendous positive, whether you are like me, a hobbyist who finds enjoyment operating them in my private time; or also like me, a police chief whose department employs a drone for a variety of tasks that saves us money and more importantly – reduces danger to officers.

My introduction to drones came three years ago from my interest in photography. I was hooked once I saw the possibilities that drones provided for taking intriguing and hard-to-get photos.


See for yourself: Video shot by Chief Burguan in the San Bernardino mountains.


Some other members of my department shared the hobby. Before long, we were talking about how a drone could augment our departmental capabilities.

We made sure to take our time though. Mention drones and for a lot of people it has military connotations. They think of unmanned planes firing Hellfire missiles at insurgents in foreign countries.

So we researched potential products and eventually went to our City Council and asked them to approve it in public session. We did so even though at a cost of about $7,000 it fell far below the threshold for expenditures needing council approval.

The reason why was fairly simple: We wanted to be as transparent as possible. We knew we needed the public to understand why we wanted the drone. Being transparent just made sense.

I explained at the meeting that the drone we were proposing was essentially a camera program that would assist our department in taking crime-scene photos, burglary calls for rooftops, some search-and-rescue operations, and when necessary, for high-risk vehicle stops. I also explained that we will get a warrant whenever required by law.

Our City Council was very supportive. We purchased a DJI Inspire 1 and immediately went to work to get FAA authorization. That took a lot of time, and approval comes in bits and pieces, but if you ever consider purchasing a drone for your department, it’s critical to follow the rules.

About four months ago, we received full clearance and immediately put the drone to use.

We have had some real successes. Last year, we were pursuing a suspect who threw what we thought was a gun into a field. Rather than putting a team together to go and search the expansive area, we sent up the drone and worked the field until we found the weapon.

Our primary use of the drone is to take crime-scene photos. In the past when we needed a shot from the air, we contacted the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, which has always been gracious with sharing the use of its helicopters. But that tied up their air support from other duties, costs a lot of money, and sometimes isn’t available because it’s already been deployed.

As a result of that, we were very selective when we used it. Now with a drone, it saves time and money, and it’s something that we can get whenever it’s needed.

For a department like ours, it’s imperative to use innovation to help offset costs. We once had our own helicopter but they are too expensive to maintain. I imagine that’s a reality for a lot of policing leaders these days.

We did not have the drone 17 months ago when faced with the Dec. 2, 2015, terror attack in our city. But we definitely could have used it following the shootout when we stopped the two terrorists.

We believed they had explosive devices (a suspected pipe home – it ended up being trash and was ruled out as belonging to the suspects – we just did not know at the time)  and the only mechanism we had was to put people in armored vehicles to get close for a look.

If we had a drone, we could have flown it up to the SUV window for a close examination, and not put people’s lives in danger.

But what particularly interests me is that while we as a policing industry are looking at how drones fit what we do currently, I am intrigued by the thought of adapting what we do to capitalize on their capabilities;

Imagine having a fixed-wing drone always present, circling above your city. A call comes in for a burglary or a shooting (or really any crime where an officer’s presence is needed immediately).

While officers are going to take five, 10, even 15 minutes to arrive, a staff member at your HQ can plug in the GPS coordinates and the drone could be deployed to be at the scene in a matter of moments.

That means you have eyes on the scene shortly after the crime has been committed, or maybe it is still ongoing. You thereby reduce dangers by preparing your officers with critically important information.

If suspects flee the scene, you can get a description of them or their vehicle.

I truly believe that under these circumstances, crime numbers for any crime-in-progress will potentially drop substantially. Think about it – criminals are smart and pay attention. Once they see how quickly we can respond, it’s a true game-changer.

That sort of innovation is probably far down the road. There are a great number of issues to be addressed, such as FAA regulations limiting flying to within five miles of an airport.

And yet, the possibilities are monumental for crime fighting. The biggest impediment is fear, which while I understand on surface levels, ignoring the possibilities – or worse yet, limiting them via legislation – is a mistake.

This is a technology that is not going away and will only continue to evolve. Look at what Amazon is hoping to do with drones flying packages to people’s homes.

My suggestion is to embrace the possibilities for your department and your community. The future is clearly now.


Chief Jarrod Burguan has been with the San Bernardino Police Department since January 1992. Burguan has a master’s degree in management from the University of Redlands, and POST Command College (Class 53). He also holds a POST Management Certificate.

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Jarrod Burguan

Chief Jarrod Burguan

San Bernardino Police Department, CA

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