Brookhaven plans to expand police drone coverage

The Brookhaven Police Department has a drone unit.

Credit: Brookhaven Police Department

Combined ShapeCaption
The Brookhaven Police Department has a drone unit.

Credit: Brookhaven Police Department

It’s been a year since Brookhaven police’s drone program got off the ground, and the department laid out a plan to expand its coverage area.

Lt. Abrem Ayana, who is over the drone program, said the extra eyes in the sky have helped the department respond to hundreds of calls over the past year, while also assisting with arrests and documenting evidence. He gave the program’s first annual report on Tuesday, and he was able to tout how a drone helped officers arrest two armed robbery suspects hours earlier.

“That is just a small example of what this drone does on a day-to-day basis,” he said during the City Council work session.

The department launched its UAS (unmanned aerial system) unit of four drones in early 2021. It was the first drone response program in Georgia, and they’re deployed to witness crimes in progress, document crime scenes and provide a bird’s eye view for officers on the ground.

ExploreBrookhaven adopts first police drone response program in Georgia

Since the program launched, Ayana said the drones have responded to 537 calls for service, which includes 911 responses and backup duty for officers. He said that’s a small number in comparison to the 85,000 total calls for service the department answered during that timeframe, but he said there are logistical challenges that prevent drones from responding in every case.

Due to the city’s proximity to Peachtree-DeKalb Airport, the city has federal clearance to fly drones only in certain places and up to certain altitudes. In addition, the department can’t fly the drone more than one mile away from its launch site, limiting its reach in the city. Ayana said he applied for a federal waiver in November to extend that range to three miles.

“The biggest thing I’m proud of is that we got zero citizen complaints. Citizens don’t call to complain about the drones because we’re very transparent in the way that we operate,” he said, referencing how the city maintains a drone flight history log online.

So far, drones have photographed five crime scenes in Brookhaven, which Ayana said have primarily been shootings and homicides. He also said drones have an average response time of under three-and-a-half-minutes, which is more than a minute faster than the average time for responding officers.

Hours before Ayana gave his presentation, a Brookhaven police drone aided in the arrest of Alton Johnson, 27, and Shyquan Collins, 30, who were both accused of a violent armed robbery in North Carolina. The suspects’ car was spotted by a license plate reader along Buford Highway, police said.

ExploreWATCH: 2 suspects captured in Brookhaven with help of drone

Responding officers were able to arrest Johnson, who was standing outside of the car, but Collins was inside the store. A drone was at the scene to provide aerial coverage, and its pilot spotted Collins fleeing out the back door of a CVS, running into some nearby woods, according to police. The drone tracked him until he was taken into custody.

Ayana said the situation showcases how police drones are an integral piece of modern police work, and he used a musical analogy to make his point.

“It’s all an orchestra, right? Without a good conductor and putting those pieces in place, we don’t have a good concert, essentially,” he said. “Because of (the drone), literally two hours ago, we had some beautiful music. We got two bad guys off the street.”