Drones to support police operations in South Africa

It is a good thing that South Africa is planning to introduce drone technology into policing structures – but it seems there is a misunderstanding among the policing top brass as to what kind of help drones can offer to the police.

Responding to questions at the presentation of 2019 Crime Statistics last week, South African Police Service (SAPS) Commissioner, General Khehla Sitole revealed that the SAPS was planning to introduce drone technology to urban policing, a move he indicated would reduce police presence in the streets.

“We have introduced the Safer City Concept, under modernisation of policing,” said General Sitole. “With the Safer City approach, we are working towards the development of a national Safer City Index, where we are taking all our cities into the index and are introducing the safer city technology. If we introduce technologies like CCTV as well as drone policing; in instances where we previously needed 5,000 police officers, we will be able to cope with 100; which is a considerable reduction of the need for police in the streets, while we enhance visibility through the technology.”

It was his mention of drones and their potential to negate some policing duties for human police officers that must have caused tension among the rank and file of 193,000-strong SAPS members, who feared they would be retrenched after being replaced by drone technology.

Police Minister Bheki Cele immediately moved to dispel that notion.

Bheki Cele

“The main element of policing is visibility,” Minister Cele clarified. “It doesn’t matter what the technology does and all that. Technology does not respond, technology does not arrest, it helps make your life easier but people that will have to implement all those outcomes of the technology are the police. Besides, we are not going to have this revolution of the smart cities all over; there will be areas that will come much later; the rural areas, so you shift your personnel there.”

Minister Cele has the right of it; just as helicopters are eyes in the air without substituting police officers worldwide, drones will do a better support job than their heavier counterparts, at a much lower cost. If anything, drone technology will be the Video Assistant Referee of the police services; just as VAR did not replace on-field human referees, but made their decision making better by providing video evidence of crucial incidents during a football match, so drones will help police officers make better plans and decisions in their policing operations, without replacing them.

DJI, the world’s biggest drone maker has been manufacturing drones for policing operations for some time now, and they know a thing or two about how their technology will be maximised in police circles.

Crime scene containment, for instance. “It is important to contain the crime scene,” says DJI, citing a case study of how Devon & Cornwall and Dorset Police Stations in the UK use drones to their advantage. “Gathering intelligence on the premises and the suspect’s movements is crucial to minimising risk for the public and the subject while maximising the safety of the officers. Aerial imaging from drones like the Mavic 2 Enterprise can help identify the location of the suspect and then evaluate the risk level when the crime scene needs to be scouted from a distance due to safety or tactical reasons.

“During an operation, there are many critical pieces of information that can be put together with the help of drone imagery and data. For example, determining the presence of civilians within a given area, the exact location of the subject and whether he or she is armed – or even spotting an escape route or vehicle nearby.”

Khehla Sitole

So, before sending people or canine support personnel into crime scenes, the police can first deploy drones to checkout which areas are safe to navigate, and if there are members of the public nearby that need to be warned to clear the area. A visual containment can be the first step, and drones can help officers achieve this. Equipped with a set of new low noise propellers and dynamic zoom cameras, drone deployment can be swift and unobtrusive, allowing officers to capture detailed images of the scene without flying any closer. It also definitely makes a difference in operational decision making to know if the suspects are armed or not.

Aside from crime scene containment and investigation, other instances in which drones have been useful to policing include the pursuit of suspects, traffic management, managing events involving large gatherings; and even seizing drones found in places they are not supposed to be.

Then there are drones being deployed as a community policing tool, an operation which has already proved fruitful in informing the public about Coronavirus in Limpopo Province, to the north of South Africa. The drones were loaded with loudspeakers and used to spread information in requisite areas; working on a template used in China to control social movement when the COVID-19 disaster first broke out.

In all these examples, drones have been used as an intelligent support for police officers on the ground, and never as a replacement. In the USA, at least 910 public safety agencies nationwide had acquired drones (most of them Chinese made) for their operations, before most of them were grounded because of the breakdown in relations between China and the USA. These drones have been used to document crime and traffic collision scenes, search for lost persons, track fleeing criminals, maintain perimeters on warrant services, and assess disaster scenes.

Drones add value to law enforcement for many reasons but two stand out: affordability and officer safety. As an alternative to helicopters, drones have made aerial surveillance more affordable. Before their widespread availability, police officers could only gain an aerial view using helicopters or airplanes, both of which are cost-prohibitive. In 2018, the SAPS had a fleet of 36 helicopters and aeroplanes, which it used for every operation that drones can do today at a fraction of the cost – crime prevention, vehicle tracking and pursuit, marijuana crop spraying, and crowd control and monitoring. Police helicopters or planes can cost anywhere from $500,000 to $3 million to acquire, and roughly $200-$400 an hour to pilot, with additional costs for maintenance.

Typical DJI Mavic Pro gear for a police operation

South Africa has the ignominy of being the third most crime-ridden country in the world with almost 40,000 murder and attempted murder cases, and over 53,000 sexual offences reported among the 621,000 crimes against individuals recorded in the year between March 2019 and March this year. The current staff complement of 193,000 cops is said to be 60,000 short of the recommended number.


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