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Vero, Shores law enforcement eye new drones after state bans Chinese model

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of March 2, 2023)

When local law enforcement agencies took to the air a couple of years back with drones, they quite naturally wanted what everyone regarded as the state of the art – drones made by the Chinese company DJI.

The Vero Beach Police Department and the Indian River Shores Public Safety Department began using them to search for missing persons, to size up a crime scene, or to track suspects fleeing on foot or a bicycle.

But DJI, which had become the industry standard for police statewide, raised more than a little suspicion when it began donating drones to American law enforcement agencies.

The images captured by these free drones were sent to “cloud servers,” and Florida government officials feared the gifted drones and the detailed footage shot of hundreds of American cities and stored in the cloud could easily be hacked for espionage purposes. So in 2021, the Florida Legislature outlawed the use of Chinese drones by government agencies.

“We had to suspend our drone program, and we’re currently looking for a new type of drone,” said Vero Beach Police Capt. Matt Monaco.

The Shores sold its now-banned drone system as surplus property. And the Shores Town Council has now voted to purchase a $32,000 public safety drone system that was not made in China.

The Shores’ new drones are the same Axion brand as the police department’s body cameras and dash cameras, so the machines will be in synch to provide footage of a crime scene, crash event, manhunt or missing persons search from various perspectives. 

Vero still has four drones purchased right before the ban that they can’t use, according to Monaco, and the department may surplus those out, too.

“We hope to have new drones very shortly,” Monaco said, adding that there’s no money in the budget for this purchase. “We may be able to use forfeiture funds, or possibly from our Vero Beach Police Foundation.”

While the Vero police department had the drones, Monaco said the devices saved time and manpower on operations such as looking for local residents with dementia who were missing, or to size up a scene around a home or business before going in to make an arrest.

The drones have indoor uses, too, that might not immediately come to mind. “We used the drone before sending the tactical team into a building that had been burglarized when we thought the suspect might still be inside,” Monaco said. “They were able to clear the building and see that the suspect was no longer there with the help of the drone.”

If the need arose and the Vero police got a tip that some contraband was being brought in, Monaco said they could also use the drone to scan the waterways, though the U.S. Coast Guard would be the lead agency regarding any illegal substance, or immigrants that arrived on the island’s beaches.

Meanwhile, back on land, the new Indian River Shores police motorcycle – the town’s first – has arrived. But no need to begin scanning the bushes along A1A for a hidden motorcycle policeman just yet.

“The officers have yet to receive training,” said Public Safety Chief Rich Rosell.  “It will still be a few months before the bike is ready for patrol.”

The Shores plans to use the motorcycle for traffic enforcement and visibility only during daylight hours for safety reasons.

The Vero Beach Police Department has two motorcycles with one trained officer currently on traffic enforcement. Vero has no restriction against using the motorcycle at night, but Monaco said daytime patrol simply makes more sense.

“Daytime is when we have the most traffic volume and crashes,” he said.

Vero’s motorcycle patrol is also used in the city’s annual Christmas parade to keep pedestrians out of the parade route, and at other large events for crowd control.