Drones deployed to fight crime in Houston neighborhoods

HOUSTON – The forecast was dire as Houston faced record rainfall and flooding with Hurricane Harvey bearing down.

Officer Larry Boggus with the Memorial Villages Police Department was preparing for catastrophe.

“I knew I was going to be locked in at the department for several days, and so I brought my drone to work,” he said.

An avid drone pilot, Boggus thought the drone might come in handy.

“We could tell where the water was. People were stuck and needed help on the roofs. We could also see where traffic was,” Boggus said.

What started out as "just in case" quickly turned into a revolutionary crime-fighting tool.

“Who knew. It just blew up from there,” he said.

Now, instead of just patrolling the streets in his vehicle, Boggus has an eye in the sky.

“We started getting cases where we'd have someone fleeing from a vehicle, like at a traffic stop. You can immediately get a drone up in 30-45 seconds and fly and start looking for them, while you're setting up the perimeter,” he said.

Drones aren't just helping track down criminals on the run, they can help find missing people too.

"If it's a domestic and somebody ran away. If it's a lost child. If it's anything that we have eyes on that we can put our drone up, or locate or clear the scene or provide what we call over watch for other responders coming in,” Boggus said.

Ray Schultz is the chief of police for Memorial Villages PD.

He said drones provide a cost-effective form of aerial surveillance without the massive expense of using a helicopter.

“A helicopter, somewhere between $2.5 and $5 million, depending on how you want to have it equipped. You can buy a drone for about $15,000. We can now have the resource available to us immediately because we own it. We can immediately deploy it to help serve our residents,” Schultz said.

Residents like Kelly Cubbage, who said one evening in January she got a call from her alarm company about suspicious activity at her home.

“We had a glass break and two doors had been opened, and called the police. About 10 minutes later, we got a call letting us know the fire department has dispatched, too,” Cubbage said.

By the time Cubbage reached her home, flames were shooting from the chimney. She knew the fire she'd lit in the fireplace had not fully extinguished.

“Immediately, I thought the fireplace has reignited, we have furniture outside and I thought the furniture is on fire, the glass had broken, the doors are open. I mean, I just imagined this explosion,” Cubbage said.

Boggus flew his drone over the fire, giving a bird's eye view of the hot spots, and Cubbage, the reassurance that her family's home would be OK.

“It was actually very fascinating and very comforting to know that they had that level of technology available,” Cubbage said.

Thanks to the generosity of residents, the department now has its own drones, and an SUV equipped with a 43-inch screen that allows officers to watch the action below in real time.

“So what we were missing before, driving around in a patrol car, because everyone knows what a cop car looks like. Stickers and light bars on it, and squeaky brakes. The drones up there, you have no clue. And it's been a crime-fighting tool in that aspect of catching these guys and protecting property all at the same time,” Boggus said.

Boggus has also worked with more than 45 other police departments -- including Bellaire and Pearland -- either providing drone training for their officers or even overwatch at scenes.

Schultz said drones are where the future of police work is heading.

“That's what technology is all about. Helping officers make better decisions. Helping improve the safety of the officer but also improving the safety of the community,” Schultz said.

Boggus and Schultz said drone technology in law enforcement is only getting more advanced. They're even exploring new drone technology which would allow a drone to be automatically dispatched to a scene when a 911 call is made.