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Local police agencies weigh costs of technological advancements

Sgt. Brad Carls holds up a Remington 700 sniper rifle Thursday during a DeKalb County Sheriff’s Citizens Police Academy at the DeKalb County Highway Department.
Sgt. Brad Carls holds up a Remington 700 sniper rifle Thursday during a DeKalb County Sheriff’s Citizens Police Academy at the DeKalb County Highway Department.

DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott can envision a day when local police use unmanned aerial vehicles to search for lost individuals or criminal suspects.

“Our main focus would be for field searches,” Scott said. “This would be for a concentrated area ... short-term searches of wooded areas or fields.”

He’s not interested in using unmanned technology for long-term surveillance, though.

Those unmanned aerial vehicles, often called drones, have generated much conversation in political and government circles, with U.S. Sen. Rand Paul delivering a 13-hour filibuster March 6 on the possibility of the U.S. government using them to execute kill orders on Americans on U.S. soil. The next day, a bill to restrict drone use in Illinois was approved by a state Senate committee.

In 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union published a report calling for more restrictions on drone use, noting different instances in which law enforcement used them. None was in Illinois, but various news reports have mentioned their growing popularity among law enforcement agencies.

The main obstacle in acquiring drones, or any new piece of equipment, is funds. Local departments have limited money for any equipment purchases.

“You have to balance what you’d like to do with what you can afford to do,” Scott said. “That’s the challenge everyone in law enforcement faces.”

The sheriff’s office has a mobile command force and a special operations team, Scott said. It also acquired a new firearms simulator, something Scott was glad to get.

DeKalb Police Chief Gene Lowery said his department is replacing outdated equipment.

“I think there are several areas within our agencies, as well as within agencies throughout the area, if we took an honest assessment of the state of equipment and resources, [we’d find] much of our equipment and resources are dated and unavailable,” Lowery said.

Through networks such as the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System, DeKalb could get the drones, armor or robotics for certain situations, if necessary. But Lowery said the equipment is not ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Scott is one of the co-chairs of the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System, which is a volunteer statewide network of officers and departments that pool resources and manpower.

“Our whole agency is built on trust,” said Jim Page, the network’s executive director. “Today I’ll send somebody because tomorrow, I might need somebody.”

Page said the network – and law enforcement in general – was swamped with money from the federal government after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Instead of using that money to buy big-ticket equipment, they invested in personnel.

“We built regional SWAT teams, mobile field force teams, explosive ordnance teams, so we can get agencies working together instead of buying a community something,” Page said. “It’s aimed at supporting these regional teams – vehicles, hazardous materials detectors ... things most police departments don’t have in their budgets.”

But harsh economic realities have hit the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System, too. Page said when the network started, it bought nine armed vehicles, one for each mobile force team.

“We can’t do that today,” Page said. “We can’t replace those. When those ... break, that’s it. It’s done.”

Page echoed Lowery’s comments on drones.

“It’s not even on our menu,” he said.

Lowery noted things could change over time. As technology becomes more pervasive, it also becomes cheaper. Lowery noted the price of calculators have gone down tremendously since their introduction.

“Maybe in the future, you’ll see some of those technologies come into local law enforcement,” Lowery said.

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