Illinois Tragedy Leads to Flexibility for Law Enforcement Using Drone Technology

More drones come online for law enforcement agencies across the country as mass shootings continue to happen at large events. 

A new law in Illinois allows law enforcement agencies to preemptively use drones for real-time monitoring and threat detection during outdoor events. According to a Route-Fifty article, drones can only be used in this capacity at events that are outdoors, open to the public, and hosted by the state, a county, a municipality, a township or a park district. This law expanded use in Illinois from the previous allowances which were limited to criminal investigations, a traffic crash, crime scene photography, disaster response, or counterterrorism efforts.

Before the laws enactment, public safety officials would have to wait for a 9-1-1 call with a need for an approved use rather than having the ability to take a proactive approach. The law was spearheaded by a democratic legislator that had previously been in attendance at an event where an active shooter incident took the lives of seven and injured fifty. From the article:

“Unfortunately, it was a bad situation that helped push this change for the better,” said Lt. Matt Udelhoven of the Elgin Police Department in Illinois.

A national organization called the Law Enforcement Drone Association, a nonprofit dedicated to drone implementation in the public safety sector, notes that 10 percent or less of law enforcement agencies are using drones for real-time monitoring of mass gatherings despite the potential benefits.

One valuable opportunity that was highlighted is the threat prevention approach at larger events. Authorities are able to deploy the drone at set intervals over a location at specified times to monitor activity, rather than having constant surveillance. There is also the potential to shorten response times by targeting the exact location of an incident and tracking the movement of bad actors in real-time. Additionally, when police forces across the country are suffering catastrophic shortages, the technology gives law enforcement the ability to gather lifesaving information independent of an active duty officer being in a designated area.

Drone activity is not a new concept for state and local law enforcement in Maryland. According to a recent Baltimore Banner article, Baltimore City, Howard and Carroll have all explored ways to use the technology to keep communities safe. A Baltimore Sun article from 2019 covered similar efforts and was followed by a piece from the Baltimore Sun Editorial Board discussing the value of parameters for new technology. Like any new technology, the benefits will continue to be weighed against the potential costs, especially while threats to public safety evolve over time. An advocate from the Route-Fifty article shared in closing how changing policies in public safety often happens slowly but with vigilance.