St. Paul police plan to buy drones, asking for public comments on policy

Eye in the sky – St. Paul Police drones

Eye in the sky - St. Paul Police drones

The St. Paul Police Department is hoping to put new eyes in the sky. The department is seeking public feedback while they research the use of “unmanned aircraft systems,” more commonly known as drones.

According to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s latest report in 2021, 76 agencies in Minnesota use drones.

RELATED: New report details drone use by law enforcement agencies in Minnesota

Senior Cmdr. Brad Hazelett with the St. Paul Police Department says drones reduce risk to officers, the public and suspects. Not only will it give police a bird’s-eye view but thermal optics detect heat signatures to locate those who may be missing or vulnerable.

“Every year officers are murdered by violent suspects when they’re pursuing them, typically after a violent crime has occurred,” Hazelett added. “What we think is a much safer alternative than to pursue a person on foot is to set up a perimeter and use both K9s and UAS, unmanned aircraft systems.”

On Thursday, St. Paul police responded to a fatal shooting at the Target on Suburban Avenue. Police say the suspect took off into the Battle Creek neighborhood. The department had to rely on the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office to deploy a drone.

“So we were seeing exactly what the drone was seeing up in our intelligence unit, which is an asset we haven’t had in the past,” Hazelett said. “Anytime you rely on another agency, you’re kind of at their mercy. Time is going to degrade; there’s going to be a lag there.”

Before drones, the agency relied on the Minnesota State Patrol helicopter, but the helicopter is often in high demand by law enforcement agencies, Hazelett said. He notes that because drones are small in size, drones are able to maneuver certain areas better.

“One thing we will never do is randomly fly UAS around looking for something,” said Hazelett. “Every time we launch one, it’s either for training, we’re looking for someone who is lost, vulnerable or we’re looking to locate a suspect who committed a violent crime.”

In addition, Hazelett says with the statewide officer shortage, the timing to purchase drones couldn’t be better.

“There’s a huge shortage of people coming into this profession, so it stands to reason that we need to do more with less,” he said.

Consumer level drones that law enforcement use cost about $300 for a small one, about $5,500 for a medium size and $14,000 for a large one. The police department plans to use general funds to purchase five drones, one for each patrol district, including the SWAT team and bomb disposal.

The police department will have to follow Federal Aviation Administration rules and state statutes which prohibits drones with facial recognition or weapons and requires filing reports each time drones are used.

The St. Paul Police Department has worked on its draft policy with the mayor’s office, City Council members and community leaders. Before the agency can make any purchases, public comments are required under state law.

The St. Paul Police Department is holding community meetings about how police plans to use drones and proposed drone policy:

  • 6 p.m. Thursday, April 13 at the police department’s Western District office, 389 Hamline Ave. N.
  • 6 p.m. Thursday, April 20 at the Eastern District office, 722 Payne Ave.

Click here to view the proposed policy and find a link to submit feedback on the city’s website.