Austin police officers are gearing up to use drones to map out scenes of fatal crashes across the city.
The new technology could cut the time investigators spend gathering evidence by as much as 80 percent, significantly reducing traffic on some of Austin’s congested and dangerous roadways while keeping officers safe from passing vehicles, said Lt. Blake Johnson of the vehicular homicide unit.
Over the next two weeks, the Austin Police Department will hold a series of public hearings to inform residents about the new drones and how they will be used.
Johnson said the use of drones, such as quadcopters outfitted with cameras, is becoming a best practice among police departments across the country. Before, officers investigating deadly crashes employed a method similar to what land surveyors use when they map a scene and measure distance with lasers.
That process, Johnson said, could take up to three hours. That causes colossal headaches for commuters on Interstate 35, MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and other high-traffic roadways.
The average time for drones to get the job done from launch to landing is about 15 minutes, Johnson said. Investigators then can continue their work from the safety of an office.
He said that while speed is a big part of the equation in making the switch, safety is also a primary factor.
Many deadly crashes force police to completely close a high-speed roadway during an investigation, but the scenes remain dangerous for officers.
A vehicle can slip through barricades or hit police officers at the scene as one did in February, when it struck Round Rock police officer Charles Whites, who was directing traffic on Interstate 35 near Palm Valley Boulevard. Whites died from his injuries a few months later.
As more departments begin to use drones, critics of the technology remain skeptical, raising privacy concerns and ethical questions about how the devices could be used.
Johnson said the vehicular homicide unit’s drones will be used solely to investigate traffic crash scenes.
“This is going to be used in a completely forensic environment. We’re capturing cars on a public roadway involved in a crash. It is in no way is a surveillance tool,” Johnson said. “When we go to map our scenes, we’re going to have it void of any people, investigators, law enforcement or otherwise; we don’t want them in there. We want to map the actual crash scene, the vehicle, the debris, skid marks and so forth to ultimately create that 3D model that we can take to prosecution.”
Matthew Foye, an assistant district attorney assigned to vehicular crimes, said the Travis County district attorney pitched more than $8,000 into the program to provide software police needed to operate the drones.
Austin police on Friday could not immediately provide the total cost of the drones.
In addition to speed and safety, both Johnson and Foye said the drones will help prosecutors down the line in cases of driving while intoxicated, vehicular manslaughter and other criminal cases that arise from crashes.
“I believe it will lead to the collection of more thorough evidence,” Foye said. “When you have more thorough evidence, you have a stronger case.”
While Austin police are just getting started with drones, Austin firefighters have been using them on-and-off since 2014.
Assistant Fire Chief Richard Davis said the Fire Department most recently has been using its drones to monitor wildfires and prescribed burns, but they are also used with other incidents, such as the large fire in June at the Mission James Place apartments in South Austin.
Davis said the drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, give better insight and vantage points to firefighters during and after incidents.
Authorities can review live streaming footage to track the fire’s movement, and can send drones closer to damaged structures where it’s too dangerous for firefighters.
At the beginning of the Fire Department’s drone program, Davis said he was careful to make sure he clearly communicated the need for drones, and how they would be used to reassure community members who viewed drones in a negative light.
Davis said military-grade UAVs loaded with missiles or outfitted with surveillance equipment attached a negative stigma to drones in general for many.
“I wanted people to understand that these UAVs here are great tools for public safety, and it allows us to do our jobs a lot better, a lot safer and a lot quicker,” Davis said.
Public hearings on police drones
The first is scheduled in North Austin for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Westin Hotel at the Domain, 11301 Domain Drive.
The second will be in South Austin at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Austin police South Substation, 404 Ralph Ablanedo Drive.
The third and final meeting will be in East Austin at 6 p.m. Sept. 5 in the Austin police East Substation, 812 Springdale Road.