Within the rise of the police department, real-time crime centers


One afternoon I went with Heather West, the detective who looked through gray pickups in the license plate database, and Josh Terry, the analyst who discovered the kidnapper in the cowboys jacket, to fly a drone over an adjacent park urban golf course on the outskirts of the city. West was in control; Terry followed the drone’s path in the sky, maintaining “situational awareness” for the crew. Another detective focused on the iPad, showing what the drone was seeing versus where and how it was flying.

Of all the devices under the hood of the real-time crime center, drones are possibly the most strictly regulated, subject to security (but not privacy) and Federal Aviation Administration scrutiny. In Ogden, the neighbor of a large air force base, these rules are tightened by flight restrictions for most of the city. The police had to obtain exemptions in order to be able to take their drones off the ground. It took two years to develop guidelines and get the necessary permits to start the flights.

Joshua Terry, an analyst who does much of the real-time crime center’s mapping work using a drone.


The police department bought their drones with the aim of handling large public events or complex incidents such as hostage situations. However, Dave Weloth soon realized: “The more we use our drones, the more use cases we find.” At the Real-Time Crime Center, Terry, who has a Masters in Geographic Information Technology, had given me a tour of the city using images gathered from recent drone flights and clicking through to dotted cloud-shaped patches made from the composite photos of the drone the map of Ogden.

Above 21st Street and Washington, he zoomed in on a fatal accident caused by a red motorcycle. A bloody sheet covered the driver’s body, legs spread on the sidewalk, surrounded by a ring of fire engines. In a matter of minutes, the drone’s cameras had scanned the scene and created a centimeter-accurate 3D model that replaced the complex choreography of location markers and fixed cameras on the ground that sometimes closed important junctions for hours after a fatal collision.

Nobody seemed to think much about the fact that people who were homeless had tacitly become the sight most frequently caught by the police agency’s drone program.

When the region was hit by a strong storm last September, Terry used a drone to fly over huge piles of fallen trees and brushes collected by the city. When district officials saw the resulting volume analysis – 12,938 cubic meters – to be submitted as part of an application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, they asked the police department to conduct the same service for two neighboring cities. Ogden drones have also been used to locate hot spots after forest fires, locate missing people and fly Overwatch for SWAT team raids.

This flight was more routine. As I pulled into the parking lot, two officers from Ogden’s community police watched as West drove the vehicle over a dense stand of Gambel oaks and then hovered over a triangular block fortress on a hill a few hundred yards away. Although they had never met people sweeping the area with drones, trash and makeshift structures were the order of the day. As soon as the RTCC determined the location of the camps, community service officers walked in to take a closer look. “We get a lot of positive feedback from runners and hikers,” said one official. After a recent visit to a pond near a pond on 21st Street, he and the county social workers who accompanied him found shelter for two people they met there. When clearing camps, the police also try to establish a connection [people] with the services they need, ”said Weloth. The department recently hired a full-time homeless worker coordinator to help. “We can’t stay out of this problem,” he said, likening the department’s efforts to prevent the creation of new camps to “pushing water uphill.”


Steven Gregory