The Milwaukee County Sheriff Offices drone (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) has provided the Wisconsin Examiner with a log detailing the activities of its drone unit. Since the now eight-man unit was announced last year, a full accounting of its activities has yet to be released to the public. Detailing over 20 flight days, the log includes flight locations, purpose, and which drone the office used. The log was provided through open records requests to MCSO.
In March 2021, the unit’s first commander, then-Sergeant Andrew Bilda, outlined MCSO’s vision for the use of drones. “We want to make sure we are doing everything right, protecting citizens’ rights along with protecting the sheriff’s office as well,” said Bilda. He praised the prospect of increasing “officer safety by utilizing the drones to map crime scenes, crash scenes and provide an overall aerial view of a developing incident in real time.”
The unit started off with two DGI Mavic drones, one equipped with Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR). Each unit cost $400. MCSO’s drone log lists four categories of drone including “Visual Observer,” “Enterprise Dual,” “Enterprise Zoom,” and “Mavic Mini 2.” Bilda is listed among the drone pilots with Dillion Kelley, Chad Olszewski, Timothy Kraklow, Noel Ybarra Jr., Rebecca Ehrmann, Anthony Galewski and Fred Gayle.
Periodic training days aside, the drones have been used for a variety of purposes. According to the log, the first time the drones were used in the field was February 25, 2021. Kelley and Ybarra Jr. were pilots that day with the flight logged as “drone deployment in support of potential protest/civil unrest.” The flight occurred at the Milwaukee County Courthouse on 901 N. 9th St.
The Milwaukee County Sheriff drone flight log. Dated December 14, 2020-December 14, 2021.
At court proceedings followed by a large public gathering on that day, civil rights attorney Kimberley Motley outlined the involvement of Wauwatosa detectives in the 2016 Jay Anderson shooting investigation involving their own department. (Police departments are prohibited by state law from participating in investigations of shootings involving one of their own officers.) Many local activists, people who’d protested during 2020 and supporters of Anderson’s family attended the court proceedings.
No incidents of violence or property destruction occurred during the John Doe hearings, even in June, after it was announced that no charges would be issued against Mensah, who is now employed by the Waukesha Sheriff’s Department. At times, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Glenn Yamahirro did discourage cheering and other noise from the gallery. Another courthouse drone flight occurred on March 3rd, 2021 when protesters, many of them from The People’s Revolution (TPR), gathered for a small demonstration outside the courthouse.
Kelley was also the pilot for a flight on April 2, 2021. With 19 flights over the year from 2020-2021, seven of which were in field missions, Kelley presents as MCSO’s most experienced drone pilot. The April 2 flight was an emergency deployment involving a vehicle pursuit and foot chase in Menomonee Falls.
Next came a search mission for an intoxicated person, who may have been in the grass off the highway ramp. That same day, on May 19, 2021, Sgt. Bilda and pilot Olszewski took drones over Gordon Park in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. A shots-fired incident was reported in the park. The Milwaukee Police Department’s (MPD) cell phone tracking technology also documented use on the same day for a shooting.
Olszewski flew again on July 19, 2021, to assist the West Allis Police Department to “clear Dollar Store rooftop.” The flight was noted as “authorized by Sgt. Bilda.” The following day pilots Olszewksi, Kraklow, and Ybarra Jr. conducted flights to support Milwaukee PD as the NBA finals played out. On July 31, Kelley logged a flight to track a vehicle pursuit in Brookfield, and to help search for the suspect after the vehicle crashed. Nearly a month later on August 27, 2021, Kelley flew again over a People’s Revolution protest. This time it was in Sherman Park, the site of the 2016 unrest sparked after the killing of 23-year-old Syville Smith by a Milwaukee officer. Unlike the courthouse missions, this drone log only reads “in support of protest,” and doesn’t mention civil unrest.
Kelley later searched for an armed suspect from Franklin after a vehicle pursuit in September. Then came a fly-over of a standoff involving MPD on the freeway in October. Kelley again assisted MPD on a search and rescue mission for a missing person on the Oak Leaf Trail in early November 2021. This was the last documented field flight during 2021. MPD also has its own drones. At least some of MPD’s drones are deployed from large white or black surveillance vans the department calls “critical response vehicles.”
When the drone unit was first announced, Bilda explained ways the drone may be utilized. Although the sergeant talked at length about its utility for monitoring traffic and documenting crash scenes, he noted its use in watching crowds as MCSO looked for other ways to monitor protesters who might try marching on the highways. Bilda also noted the technology’s use for looking for missing people and fleeing suspects.
Milwaukee County Supervisor Ryan Clancy has been critical of the MCSO’s activities. “It’s troubling,” Clancy told Wisconsin Examiner. “If you’re looking at the last year or so with the sheriff’s department, while they were running a massive deficit, [they] put forward and found the funding for an eight-person drone team, while the county already had an existing drone team under the office of emergency management.”
The Office of Emergency Management, in fact, flew drones over protests during the summer of 2020. Clancy fears that the sheriff’s office has become “almost entirely unaccountable to the public” and “extremely opaque.” He said the office “has very little budget transparency. They often just refuse to answer questions about how they’re spending their money and about how they’re surveilling folks.”
Some of Clancy’s requests to the office regarding racial equity, for example, have been refused. “We’re not the legislative budget bureau, we’re not going to provide you that information,” he said they told him. He added, “It’s troubling to see law enforcement on the one hand refuse to be transparent and then to constantly find ways to surveil the public and then just not tell us about it.”
Clancy adds, “If they think that it’s effective, then they should be providing that data.” Nevertheless, as Clancy said in a recent Examiner article on surveillance, “these are conversations overall that we should be having before they deploy these technologies. Not after the fact. And it’s frustrating that they seem to think that they don’t need buy-in from electeds or the public at large before they take these really significant actions.”
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