East Ridge Police Department launching drone program

Staff file photo by Olivia Ross / A drone is flown during a demonstration by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, which unveiled its new Unmanned Aerial Systems Command Vehicle in November. The East Ridge Police Department recently accepted a grant to purchase its own drone and command vehicle.

The East Ridge Police Department is joining a growing number of law enforcement agencies using drone technology.

East Ridge has accepted a grant from the Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice Violent Crime Intervention Fund for the purchase of equipment and technology, including a drone and a van to serve as a command center for the drone.

Several recent incidents — including one in which an officer was shot in 2020, and another in which a truck transporting chemicals caught fire — motivated the department to initiate a drone program, Police Chief Clint Uselton said at Thursday's East Ridge City Council meeting.

"(We will be) using the drone in that type of situation, where we can go in and put eyes on stuff that puts officers directly at risk," he said. "Tennessee has very, very strict regulations on police departments and drones, and we will absolutely follow those."

The $190,762 grant requires no matching funds from the city, Uselton told council members, who unanimously approved acceptance of the grant.

(READ MORE: Sheriff's fleet of drones helps catch bad guys but presents privacy problems)

In addition to the drone, the grant will also cover the cost of a phone application citizens can use to communicate tips and other information to police officers, Uselton said.

The funds also will be used to upgrade the department's forensic technology, Assistant Chief Josh Creel said at the same meeting. That will include the purchase of laser scanners and alternative light source kits, which use a variety of wavelengths to identify different forms of evidence for crime scene investigations.

The grant will cover additional technology for the department's tactical teams to use when serving warrants for violent crimes and lighting for officer-issued weapons, Creel said.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Sheriff's Office unveils drone command vehicle)

Council Member David Tyler asked how the drone would be used and whether the technology would be used to gather data on citizens.

"The state of Tennessee is one of the states of the union that has very strict drone laws," Creel said. "Some states are more open. Tennessee is not, and in my opinion for the right reasons, for privacy laws."

Because of the city's proximity to the Chattanooga Airport, the drone pilots will be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and the drone will comply with the administration's regulations, Creel said.

Contact Emily Crisman at [email protected] or 423-757-6508.