UK regional police department to expand drone contingent

They used them once. They used them twice.

They used them three times – and now they want everybody in police uniform to use drones in every policing operation.

Of course we jest; not every police officer in the region will be flying the policing drones – but the West Midlands Police in the UK have found drone technology so indispensable to their work that they are now training more drone pilots to expand their drone department.

Having only started operations in 2017 with a small contingent of pilots, the West Midlands Police’s drone wing is fast becoming a world-class study in the application of policing drone technology, with a all the suspects they have helped apprehend, and the order they have helped maintain, especially during the lockdowns in the UK.

At the time of writing, the department has 32 police officers specially trained to use the 10 police drones and be on call at all times of the day. But now, obviously with responsibilities growing wider and more areas needing coverage, the need has arisen to replenish the drone section with more officers.

“Several FSU (Force Support Unit) officers are on training for the next two weeks in order to increase the number of Drone pilots on the department,” the West Midlands Police FSU announced on Tuesday. “This will help to assist with the demand on the (WMP Drone Unit) and to help those departments who require the specialist skills of a Drone.”

The WMP covers major urban areas in the UK that include Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton. It also includes the busy and thriving districts of Sandwell, Walsall, Solihull and Dudley.

This apparent thriving use case of policing drones should be good news for countries like South Africa, which has only just started making tentative forays into the use of drones for policing operations.

And right off the bat, the first thing we can think of is that the police chiefs in the country can relax if they still think drones are here to take the jobs of human police officers, as voiced by the South African Police Service Commissioner, General Kehla Sithole, last year.

“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,” General Sithole said.

Whether it was deliberate or taken out of context, his statement was widely taken to mean that the advent of drone technology into policing would negate some policing duties for human police officers and leave them redundant, and therefore out of employment.

This indeed caused tension among the rank and file of the 193,000-strong SAPS members, who feared they would be retrenched after being replaced by drone technology, and prompted the police minister, Bheki Cele to immediately moved to dispel that notion.

“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.”

Such worries should be dispelled by the impact drones have made for police officers in the UK, and actually added a competency and employment opportunities for technology enthusiasts hoping to join the police or current police officers looking to get their hands on some drone-based policing.

Perhaps it is the top-notch community policing game of the community relations liaison officers of the West Midlands police department, who seem to have done a remarkable job of convincing the local communities that drone technology is there to make them safer, not to spy on members of the general public.

But, while it does seem like the police service in South Africa has its work cut out; first in convincing its own members that their jobs are safe, before taking the idea to the people; there is already a blueprint on the ground, with the renewed efforts to promote collaboration and integrate technology into policing already bearing fruits.

It might still be something unheard to many, but the Safer City Concept in the city of Johannesburg – pooling the collaborative efforts of both private and government security stakeholders is beginning to bear tangible fruits.

The corporate response to the crime situation in Johannesburg – led by the Forum of Integrated Risk Management – has actually led to more visibility of uniformed manpower in community, with technology only coming in to aid their ground efforts and provide an extra eye for crime hotspots.

In the West Midlands – which covers areas that include – the police use drone technology for evidence gathering, crime and accident scene investigations, disaster response, surveillance, crowd control, search and rescue, among many other police drones-for-good applications that have resonated with the local community.

You just need to take a glimpse of their Twitter page to appreciate how the police drones are making a positive impact in their local communities.

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