KAUFMAN COUNTY, TEXAS — Kaufman County Sheriff’s deputies are blazing new trails and reaching unprecedented heights with a newly developed drone unit that is catching criminals and saving lives.
The Kaufman County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) Drone Unit originated last fall under the leadership of Sheriff Bryan Beavers. One of the few in the state, the unit is funded by grant and forfeiture funds.
KCSO has an arsenal of 5 drones, with one more on the way, that have proven to be useful in numerous situations from criminal investigation and suspect pursuits to missing persons and more.
Each of the department’s drones vary in size and capacity and are outfitted with capabilities that include high definition video and still photography, mapping, spotlights, thermal imaging, night vision, blue tooth connectivity and public announcement speakers, among others. Each are uniquely equipped and specifically deployed depending on the situation or scenario.
The drones reportedly range in price from $3,000 to approximately $25,000 each, none of which were paid for with tax dollars.
In addition to the drones, KCSO also has five deputies who have trained and received a license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Remote Pilot certification program to operate the drones. The drones are kept with deputies in their patrol vehicles and are ready to be deployed as soon as they are deemed appropriate or dispatched to another agency.
Mark Middleton, a 19-year KCSO veteran, says he never would imagine that his career in law enforcement would lead to him having a remote pilots license.
“Things in law enforcement have definitely changed,” Middleton tells inForney.com “When I started in law enforcement drones didn’t exist, but now we have seen such great success in so many areas and scenarios where they are so useful and safer for our deputies and the public.”
Middleton says that the Drone Unit has not only been an asset to the sheriff’s department but to law enforcements and fire departments area wide. Police and fire departments from across Kaufman county, Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Rangers have all called upon the KCSO Drone Unit for assistance in suspect pursuits, missing persons, large brush and mulch fires and some fire investigations.
“Every day we are seeing new opportunities to use the drones to help different agencies save valuable time,” Middleton says. “From when we get to a scene, we can have a drone assembled, completed our required FAA preflight checklist and be airborne in 3-4 minutes.”
The only downfall to drone technology is their use is completely contingent on proper weather conditions prior and during deployment the department says.
In video footage obtained by inForney.com, KCSO was able to assist a neighboring agency in the search of a suspect who after a brief vehicle pursuit, bailed out and began to flee away on foot into a wooded area. The area was dark, and visibility was low deputies say, making it an extremely challenging and a precarious situation for law enforcement.
Within minutes of the drone being deployed the pilot was able to locate the suspect. A few seconds later the video footage captures the suspect stop, drop to his knees, raise his hands above his head and surrender to the drone. Officers and a K-9 unit were still minutes away.
(Video courtesy of the Kaufman County Sheriff's Office)
The suspect was apprehended without incident or injury.
In another gripping video released by KCSO, footage shows how quickly and effective the drones can be in locating a missing person.
KCSO officers were dispatched to a rural farm north of Kaufman for a missing elderly man.
“Upon arriving on the scene, we learned that the elderly man had wandered away from his home and towards his pasture that was well over 50 acres. The grass was over waste high. We knew the drone was our best tool,” Middleton said. “Within 30-40 minutes we had the man located and aid provided, and he survived without injury. Without the drone it could have taken us 4-5 hours to cover that much ground.”
Footage shows the man was found lying in his pasture hundreds of yards from his home. Deputies said that the search on the ground would have been challenging in the high grass.
“This program has literally taken off,” says KCSO Public Information Officer Jolie Stewart says laughingly. “No pun intended.”
Stewart says KCSO is awaiting delivery of a sixth drone now and is anxious to get more deputies licensed.
“Sheriff Beavers was passionate that this would be a program that would be innovative and effective,” Stewart says. “We continue to have successful results and enjoy learning how multifunctional they can be in so many different types of cases. We’re excited about continuing to invest in these types of tools and resources in the future.”