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Police drones responding to 911 calls in Colorado? “This really is the future of law enforcement.”

Shelly Bradbury, The Denver Post on

Published in News & Features

Picture this: You call 911 and a drone comes whirring to your door instead of a police officer.

That could soon be a reality along parts of Colorado’s Front Range. A handful of local law enforcement agencies are considering using drones as first responders — that is, sending them in response to 911 calls — as police departments across Colorado continue to widely embrace the use of the remote-controlled flying machines.

Even the Denver Police Department, which long has resisted drones, is now launching its own program and wants to eventually use them to respond to 911 calls across the city.

“This really is the future of law enforcement at some point, whether we like it or not,” said Sgt. Jeremiah Gates, who leads the drone unit at the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office.

Like at least 20 Front Range agencies, the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office already uses drones for tasks that include searching for missing people, mapping crime or crash scenes, providing overhead surveillance during SWAT operations or tracking fleeing suspects.

But now, the sheriff’s office is considering using its 20 drones to respond to certain 911 calls, sending them both instead of officers and ahead of officers, Gates said.


A remote-controlled drone could be flown to the location of an incident to scope out the area and stream live video back to its operator, who could provide quick, detailed information to responding officers about what’s going on. Or a drone might be the sole response to the 911 call if the operator can determine from the air that officers don’t need to respond.

It’s a fledgling but growing trend across policing, and one that raises alarm for American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado staff attorney Laura Moraff.

“We’re worried about what it would mean if drones were really just all over the skies in Colorado,” she said. “We are worried about what that would mean for First Amendment activities, for speech and organizing and protesting — because being surveilled by law enforcement, including by drones, can change the way people speak and protest.”

The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office is in the “very early stages” of considering the expanded use and has yet to consider logistics like cost, equipment and public input. But Gates envisions a world where a drone is dispatched to a call about a broken traffic light or a suspicious vehicle instead of a sheriff’s deputy, allowing actual deputies to prioritize more pressing calls for help.


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