The Milwaukee County Sheriff Offices drone in flight. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Drone flights carried out by the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) dropped significantly in 2022. According to a log of drone flights obtained by the Wisconsin Examiner through open records requests, the office flew drones twice last year. That’s a sharp decline from 2021, which saw over 20 drone flight days.
The updated flight log differs somewhat from an earlier version reported by the Wisconsin Examiner last year. While the new log records information such as dates and times of flights, flight hours, pilot names, and drone models, information on why the drones were in the air is less specific. Three of the five listed flights were in the field, but were logged only as “general flights.” The remaining two flights were for training. Where exactly the general flights occurred was also not recorded.
In contrast, the log detailing flights in 2021 noted the incidents that prompted the deployment of the drones. . Drones flew in 2021 after shots fired incidents, foot chases, to clear roof tops for officers, freeway standoffs, and “potential protest/civil unrest.” A Black Lives Matter protest in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park was flown over. The unit’s first flights were during court proceedings in the 2016 police shooting of Jay Anderson, which found probable cause to charge former Wauwatosa officer Joseph Mensah.
The new flight log also lists two flights in late 2021. One of those flights, which occurred on Oct. 14, 2021, was not documented in the first flight log obtained by Wisconsin Examiner, which covered flights until December of that year. This uncataloged flight is recorded as a training flight in the new log.
A more efficient, focused unit
James Burnett, director of Public Affairs and Community Engagement at the sheriff’s office, was unable to provide some of the information absent from the most recent flight log. Burnett noted that the drone unit has undergone several changes since 2021.
“Operationally, the unit is functioning more efficiently,” Burnett told Wisconsin Examiner. “It has changed its logging process via a new software called ‘Drone Sense’ that is more thorough and time-sensitive in its ease of use. Additionally, the unit’s training has been more focused on scene preservation, crash reconstruction and the like, as well as assisting the EOD (AKA ‘bomb squad’) and assisting S.W.A.T for circumstances where, for example, there may be hostages in a structure or where deputies may not be able to see that ‘around the corner’ there is an individual awaiting them with a weapon.”
The unit is also utilizing new software to scan crash scenes, reducing the length of time freeways are closed for crash investigation. Burnett added that the MSCO is exploring ways of using the drone unit in search and rescue missions over Lake Michigan and other bodies of water. MSCO utilized four different kinds of drones in 2021, including ones equipped with Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR). Just one of those drone models, the Mavic 2 Enterprise, was flown in 2022 and January 2023.
A number of factors contributed to the decline in drone flights in 2022 as compared to 2021. Last year, according to the new flight log, the drone unit wasn’t used until Nov. 17. Two flights occurred on that day, both by drone pilot Dillon Kelley. In 2021, Kelley was the sheriff office’s most regular pilot in the unit, which at that time had eight members. Kelley’s two flights in November were the only flights of 2022. Another flight occurred on Jan. 13, 2023.
This is not a 'spy' unit
– James Burnett, Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office
Last year, Burnett explained, “there were fewer incidents in 2022 that called for specialized search assistance via drone usage, which is not necessarily a bad thing.” He added that “because the unit is a part-time unit and is a small unit whose members all have other full-time responsibilities as deputies and correctional officers, it also could be that incidents arose that may have called for drone usage but were resolved before the unit was able to respond to a particular scene or location.”
The drone unit functions on a part-time, on-call, as needed basis. “Periodically, we hear of frustrations born of misconceptions that members of the drone unit ‘must’ sit around doing little to nothing when not operating drones, when nothing could be further from the truth.” Drone unit members may double as deputies, correctional officers, go out on patrols, be assigned to the airport or courthouse, and other tasks.
MSCO endured public criticism after the first log showed drones had monitored protesters and court dates they attended. Burnett stressed that the sheriff’s drone pilots have been certified through the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), and are trained in accordance with privacy rights covered by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. “The members of MCSO’s drone unit have been educated in and practice their craft that demonstrates their knowledge of what they can do and cannot do, so as not to violate the law” he said.
“This is not a ‘spy’ unit,” Burnett told Wisconsin Examiner. “It works to ensure the safety of locations in a way that ensures the safety of subjects this agency (or agencies that have requested MCSO’s assistance) is searching for, members of the public who may be in the vicinity of a search, and, of course, members of this agency and other first responders in attendance. We are proud that we have experienced peaceful outcomes to situations that may have otherwise led to confusion or lack of safety because of obstructed views.”
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