When it comes to searching a large area in Bloomington for a missing person, the Bloomington Police Department is no longer limited to the ground.

The Police Department has an unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly referred to as a drone, available for searching areas such as the Minnesota River bottoms, and it has a policy that governs how it may be used as a law enforcement tool.

Drone technology is available to the city’s police and fire departments, and state legislation outlines the requirements and limitations by which drones can be used, according to Police Chief Jeff Potts.

When it comes to using a drone as an investigative tool, in many cases a search warrant is required, Potts said.

But there are several situations where a drone may be used for public safety functions without a search warrant. A search-and-rescue scenario would be the most common use for a drone, according to Potts. “That’s the type of use that the community can expect from this piece of equipment,” he said.

Other situations where a drone may be used by the Police Department include during or in the immediate aftermath of an emergency situation that involves the risk of death or bodily harm to a person, or during a public event where there is a heightened risk of harm to the participants or bystanders. A drone may also be used to conduct a threat assessment prior to a specific event.

Drones may be used to prevent the loss of life or property as a result of a natural or manmade disaster, and to facilitate post-recovery efforts, according to Potts.

Collecting information for automotive crash reconstruction purposes after a serious or deadly collision on a public roadway is also permitted without a search warrant, and drones may be used for purposes outside of law enforcement, at the written request of a government entity. If the city has a concern about a water tower, for example, the Police or Fire Department could use their drone to assist with the assessment of the tower, Potts explained.

There are guidelines regarding data collection and its storage. Drones cannot use facial recognition technology, and any video recorded through the use of a drone is non-public, although it is accessible by request from the subject of the video.

Video collected may be held for seven days, but then must be deleted unless it pertains to an active investigation. And uses of a drone must be documented in a log that is submitted annually to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, according to Potts.

The policy was reviewed by the city’s Multicultural Advisory Committee, and complies with state laws, Potts noted during a Jan. 4 presentation to the Bloomington City Council.

Councilmember Nathan Coulter asked for an example of a threat assessment that would permit the Police Department to use a drone. Potts said that a visit to a Bloomington hotel by a sitting president for a special event may prompt the use of a drone to aid in checking that an area is secure, as a drone would provide views of rooftops of buildings in the vicinity.

Such events have included aerial surveillance from a Minnesota State Patrol helicopter, and a drone provides another viewpoint to assess the scene from overhead, according to Mike Utecht, the Police Department’s special operations commander.

Mayor Tim Busse asked what training is required to pilot a drone. Tim Barrett, the Fire Department’s deputy chief, said pilots participate in an eight-hour online course and a 40-hour training program through the city, learning aircraft basics and piloting techniques. The city currently has six firefighters and three police officers trained to pilot drones, he noted.

Follow Bloomington community editor Mike Hanks on Twitter at @suncurrent and on Facebook at suncurrentcentral.

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