Palos Heights police show off their second-generation drone. (Photo courtesy of Palos Heights Police Department)

Palos Heights police show off their second-generation drone. (Photo courtesy of Palos Heights Police Department)

New law allows ‘helpful’ drone usage by local police

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By Isabella Schreck 

It’s a bird, it’s a plane. … Wait, it’s a drone.

Local residents may more frequently see a drone flying overhead at community events or in response to emergency situations after Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the “Drones as First Responders Act” June 16.

The new law allows drone surveillance for certain government-funded events, building inspections and 911 calls – but departments cannot use drones at events protected by the First Amendment such as political protests or demonstrations.

“In my mind, drones are first responders in that they are eyes on the scene to assist the patrol ground units,” Palos Park Police Chief Joe Miller said. “Their real-time situational awareness and streaming live video to officers allows us to have the right resources more effectively and be in the right place at the right time to resolve incidents quickly.”

Orland Park and Palos Heights police departments have their own drone equipment. Both lend their services to Palos Park’s department when needed, Miller said.

Palos Heights Police Chief William Czajkowski said his department has a newer second-generation drone which cost $25,000. This drone has better camera technology and flight time and has an infrared camera.

He said the department has used drones to locate missing people and in a barricaded hostage situation, among other incidents. Palos Heights has five drone pilots, who all must be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.

When using drones, Miller said he has never encountered officers, in a “local police setting,” wanting to violate civilian’s privacy.

“Rather, their focus is on making sure people are safe and preventing anything else from happening at a scene or incident,” he said. “Mindful of concerns about police ‘surveilling,’ most local police agencies are looking to drone technology to save lives within the parameters of the Illinois law revision.”

According to the new law, departments must post a public notice if using a drone at an event. Data gathered by drones at parades or special events must be deleted within 24 hours. Information from other situations must be deleted within 30 days.

The two chiefs agreed the law will enhance area security overall.

“It’s going to be helpful in light of everything going on in this world,” Czajkowski said. “It’s another tool now to make our town safer and our jobs a bit easier.”

The officer in charge of the Orland Park police drone program did not respond to requests for an interview.

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