The Riley County Law Enforcement Agency Board on Monday approved a policy that outlines when and how police officers can use drones in investigations.

Assistant Director Kurt Moldrup said the department introduced drones with a trial program about a year ago and wanted to become accustomed to them before adopting a formal policy.

The Riley County Police Department has four Unmanned Aerial Systems or drones, DJI M210s, that are employed under the Emergency Response Unit. They typically help with searches for missing and runaway people, as well as aerial incident and crime scene mapping.

“We’ve found the drones to be very successful,” Moldrup said. “They have to be approved by the captain of the patrol division to be brought out to assist in any kind of endeavors in the police department basically supporting our mission.”

As examples, Moldrup said the department has used drones to help with emergency situations, like during the Labor Day flood rescue efforts, and provide another viewpoint when executing local search warrants during the Operation Chicago Connection drug bust in August.

The policy said the use of drones is not limited to what’s stated in the document.

Moldrup and Director Dennis Butler noted that the department would still need to obtain search warrants to use the drone in situations the department would typically need them.

“If there is any doubt whether a search warrant is needed, then we would err on the side of caution and apply for one just to be on the safe side, so we don’t lose any evidence that we would otherwise gather by the use of the UAS,” Butler said.

Butler added the department would not need a search warrant if it were searching for a missing person or fugitive unless it later noticed indications of criminal activity.

Butler said the drones have been particularly useful in safely locating wanted people and recreating scenes for traffic collision incidents.

“In a situation where we’re looking for a wanted person, if they ran into a wooded area or an area they could be concealed typically, we would set up a perimeter, and then we would strategize in how we get this person to come out safely,” Butler said.

“It can be difficult, especially when it’s dark, so having a system like this — and we have one equipped with an infrared camera — makes that so much safer for our officers to conduct a search like that and really minimizes the potential for injury for everyone involved. It’s more efficient, and it can be done more quickly than going on foot in a large area going tree to tree, bush to bush.”

Sgt. Doug Wood, the UAS team leader, said he is seeing rising interest in using aircraft with police departments in the state. Wood said six to eight agencies have contacted him about starting their own programs, and he is aware of at least 10 others who already have their own program, including the Junction City and Topeka police departments.

“They’re finding that (drones) are significantly more cost-effective than helicopters, so in smaller communities it’s a way to add that (function),” he said.

The policy outlines that the UAS team is comprised of four members and its regular chain-of-command, some types of situations the drones can be deployed, including critical incident and tactical operation, crime scene activities and training, and the requirements for someone to join the team.

“I’m very pleased with what we’re doing, and the policy really has been crafted to comply with Kansas law and federal aviation law and regulations,” Butler said.