The warm amber glow of a person makes their way through a row of back gardens in the dark of night. The image has no sound as the camera pans left and then right to keep the individual in focus. They climb a fence, push through some bushes and turn around as they try to fathom a way out of the maze of back gardens without alerting pursuing officers.
They’re unaware their every move is being captured in thermal imaging from an all-seeing eye in the sky that is helping to co-ordinate police on the ground.
Eventually their efforts to escape end on a small flat roof, surrounded by officers who are waiting with handcuffs and torches. The officers have been guided in by a colleague operating a drone above.
‘In the past, our only option for air support has been a helicopter, but over the last few years we have benefitted from the emergence of drones.
‘Helicopters are still essential for certain situations but using drones increases our tactical options and decreases our costs,’ says PC Ryan Duffy, of Kent Police’s Search and Marine Unit.
PC Duffy, who has been with the force for 14 years, has helped spearhead Kent Police’s use of drones.
As well as tracking down suspects, such as the one in the video below, drones are helping the force locate vulnerable missing people, stolen property and hidden or discarded evidence such as weapons. They are also used to support firearms units and strike teams on warrants.
Kent Police first started using drones in April 2017 and currently has a total of eight units at its disposal. All are equipped with cameras of varying abilities with some also having thermal imaging capabilities. Some have cameras that can read a number plate from over 800 metres away.
‘Drones give us a much more complete picture of what is going on down on the ground which allows us to improve our decision-making,’ says PC Duffy.
‘It means in certain situations we’re no longer over-reliant on a single CCTV camera or line of enquiry. A drone allows us to capture a whole scene and sometimes areas beyond a particular scene to allow us to have better situational awareness.
‘We’ve found discarded drugs and weapons on rooftops or in bushes, carried out reconnaissance work before warrants or big events and been able to search places which are difficult to reach on foot.’
Drone use by police forces in England and Wales is governed by legislation from the European Union Aviation Safety Authority which stipulates how a unit may be operated and in what circumstances.
In Kent, a total of 34 officers have been trained to use the force’s drones in line with the law and in accordance with national policing approved professional practice.
As of the end of September 2021, they have been deployed a total of 285 times this year which is more than the whole of 2020 when they were used 261 times.
So far this year, 73 deployments were to locate a suspect, 63 were to find missing people and 47 were to capture crime scenes.
They were also used to help support the execution of 15 warrants, assist in planning for upcoming events and operations 64 times and help to find stolen property on seven occasions.
Chief Superintendent Vaughan Lukey, Head of Tactical Operations, said: ‘Kent Police’s drone use is increasing as we become more adept at using them and the wider force begins to understand how useful they can be for a wide range of operations.
‘They are a cost-effective tool which often help bring swift resolutions to otherwise complicated and sometimes dangerous situations, whether that’s helping to find missing or wanted people, or searching locations as part of an operation to find criminal property or protect members of the public.
‘If a technology is available to the force and we are happy it is both ethically and operationally in line with Kent Police’s values of protecting life and enforcing the law then we will make the best use of it.’