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The Journal Gazette

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette Fort Wayne police officers, from left, Matt Crawford, pilot/patrolman; Sgt. Rod Bradtmueller; Michael Hickman, pilot/patrolman; and Steve Hus, patrolman, demonstrate a drone with a practice flight.

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette A drone, controller, and battery with charger operated by the Fort Wayne Police Department can keep an eye in the sky.

  • Courtesty Fort Wayne Fire Department Fort Wayne Police Department pilot/patrolmen assist the Fort Wayne Fire Department with a drone at the scene of a fire.

Sunday, February 25, 2018 1:00 am

Drones aid police with eye in sky

Help determine cause of crashes, monitor suspects

RON SHAWGO | The Journal Gazette

Drone use by FWPD

Edited Fort Wayne police descriptions of incidents through Feb. 17:

July 13, 2017

2814 Southway Dr., 3:53 p.m. - Armed male inside threatening suicide by cop. Surrender before staging. Aerial overwatch video.

Aug. 4, 2017

699 Maple Grove Ave E., 3:02 p.m. - Vehicle pursuit of armed suspect who fled into a third party house and refused exit. Aerial overwatch video. After two rounds of chemical agent, suspect fled the house, broker perimeter, and was tracked by ASU blocks away for apprehension.

Oct. 4, 2017

1 E. Main St., 2:33 p.m. - ASU provided aerial photos and video for Capt. Balliet line of duty death procession and graveside.

Oct. 13, 2017

5188 Coventry Lane, 10 a.m. - Male suspect fled from Sheriff Gladieux in a vehicle, bailed and hid in the area. City units and ASU assisted with a perimeter but did not locate suspect.

Oct. 14, 2017

1232 Ferguson Ave., 11:29 a.m. - Stolen vehicle male suspect with warrants barricaded in an upstairs attic possibly with firearm. EST/CRT/ASU callout. Aerial overwatch video. Apprehension.

Oct. 19, 2017

2101 E. Coliseum Blvd. 9:48 a.m. - Multi-agency training at IPFW focusing on active shooter responses.

Oct. 19, 2017

2299 S. Anthony Blvd., 1:25 p.m. - ASU assist for FWFD involving a train dertailment to quickly determine cargos involved and safeguard fire assets for better response.

Oct. 29, 2017

7808 US 30 W., 6:47 a.m. - ASU assist for Homeland Security director assisting county fire departments with a large-scale fire response including environmental runoff hazards assessments.

Nov. 11, 2017

807 San Juan Circle, 9:57 a.m. - ASU assist to locate possible armed robbery suspect roaming the area of Lakeside Golf Course. Provided overwatch video for officer safety.

Dec. 11, 2017

7391 W. Jefferson Blvd., 1:36 p.m. - ASU aerial photo and video assist of FACT team for fatal crash in heavy traffic.

Dec. 12, 2017

2423 S. Calhoun St., 9:47 a.m. - ASU/CRT/EST callout for murder suicide barricade suspect who committed suicide.

Dec. 14, 2017

6199 Bunt Dr, 10:37 p.m. - Night shift patrol units in vehicle pursuit with suspects bailing in Southwick Village. ASU provided aeral overwatch video for K9 track safety.

Dec. 16, 2017

199 E. Pontiac St, 3:26 a.m. - ASU assist for FACT team on fatal crash for video and photos.

Jan. 1, 2018

399 E. Washington Blvd., 3:08 a.m. - ASU assist for FACT team on fatal crash for video and photos.

Jan. 2, 2018

999 Harmar St., 7:14 p.m. - ASU assist for FACT team on fatal crash for video and photos - large scene.

Jan. 10, 2018

419 W. Brackenridge St., 2:16 p.m. - ASU/CRT/EST callout for possible armed robbery suspect inside the location.

Jan. 18, 2018

E. Coliseum Boulevard and Crescent Avenue, 4:02 a.m. - ASU assist for FACT team on fatal crash for video and photos - large scene.

Jan. 28, 2018

10301 Maysville Road, 11:43 p.m. - ASU assist for car fire in wooded area in conjunction with FWFD trying to locate victim(s) using thermal camera.

Feb. 2, 2018

Bethel Road and W. Dupont Road, 8:19 p.m. - Hit-skip crash with suicidal suspect removing AR15 rifle and fleeing into nearby neighborhoods. ASU deployed two teams to locate the high risk suspect who spotted drones and hid in area after giving up the rifle and returning to a nearby house where he was taken for medical evaluation.

Feb. 6, 2018

1923 E. Pontiac St., 8:18 p.m. - Shots fired in neighborhood with three victims - adult female and two children - in doorway of home; ASU overwatch of K9 and patrol track in area to reduce ambush risk.

Feb. 7, 2018

1524 Bayer Ave., 10:52 a.m. - EST/CRT/ASU callout for robbery suspect not found in the address but later apprehended by patrol units at Georgetown Library.

Feb. 17, 2018

I-469, 3:01 p.m. - ASU assist for FACT team of fatal motorcycle crash.


ASU: Air Support Team

CRT: Crisis Response Team

EST: Emergency Services Team

FACT: Fort Wayne/Allen County Crash Team

Source: Fort Wayne Police Department


Wanted on prior warrants and police on his tail, Elijah Swopshire holed up in a house on Warsaw Street until the tear gas got to him.

Swopshire had barged into the home after bolting from a vehicle during a short police chase about 3 p.m. Aug. 4. Three residents were able to leave. Now a “chemical agent” deployed by police forced him outside in a run for freedom.

Swopshire likely didn't know drones were tracking his every move.

“I just followed him (with the drone) and was able to maintain his location and where he was going until officers could apprehend him,” said Officer Lucas McDonald, who with Officer Michael Hickman piloted the drones that day. Both are members of the Fort Wayne Police Department's Air Support Team, formed last summer.

From barricaded subjects like Swopshire to a train derailment to fatal accidents, the team has been deployed more than 20 times since July. The Warsaw Street standoff was its second.

With a team of seven men and three drones, the challenge is getting the drones to a scene fast enough, said Lt. Jonathan Bowers, who heads the unit. Budget constraints and keeping up with drone technology are constant concerns, he added.

The unmanned drones, with video cameras on board, are controlled by certified police drone pilots from the ground. Two six-propeller drones police introduced last summer cost just under $10,000 for the pair. The Noble County Sheriff's Department also uses drones.

Started as part of the FWPD's Crisis Response Team to “overwatch” scenes that might involve hostages or standoffs, the drone unit has quickly found other uses, team members say.

On Oct. 19, a Norfolk Southern train derailed on the South Anthony Boulevard overpass about 1:30 p.m. Drones were deployed to help city firefighters determine cargo involved.

“Just being able to hastily verify that there was no hazardous material on board an overturned car, that was useful for them,” said Steve Hus, a drone unit member.

The unit also helped determine runoff of contaminants in a large Washington Township fire in October, Hus said, and assisted in six fatal crashes to help determine cause.

“We could have 20 guys come up and tell you what happened,” Bowers said. “But the minute you have something visual or auditory and video both, all of the sudden, now it's real.”

Perhaps most important, having a camera hovering overhead of an unfolding scene reduces risk of a police ambush as they corner a suspect, Bowers said.

On Oct. 14, the unit was called to the 1200 block of Ferguson Avenue on the city's near-northeast side. A person, wanted on warrants and possibly armed, was barricaded in an attic. The team again provided an overview of the scene, which ended peacefully with an arrest.

As police responded to a complaint at 2423 S. Calhoun St. on Dec. 12 they heard a gunshot. The drone unit was one of the teams called in. Again it provided an overwatch for the command center, supplying a live video feed of the house and where police were positioned. Two men were found dead inside, the result of a murder-suicide.

“I think every time we've flown, we've contributed with the mission at hand, whether it's the FACT (Fort Wayne/Allen County Crash) team or a barricaded subject or whatever,” said drone pilot Matt Crawford.

Not all deployments come to a conclusion.

About 10 a.m. on Nov.  11, the unit was called to San Juan Circle, near Lakeside Golf Club, to locate a mentally ill robbery suspect who had threatened others with a hammer. The suspect had gone into a nearby woods. Drone and canine units were called in to search but were unsuccessful.

But the Swopshire video shows the overwhelming advantages. As he runs, Swopshire makes it past the SWAT team, crosses an alley and into backyards. By the time he gets to the next street, Monroe Street, police are close behind. He gives up before crossing the next block.

Swopshire had left his gun in the house, but police didn't know that, Bowers said. If not for the drone, officers would be unaware of the danger as they round each house in pursuit. Swopshire was convicted of resisting law enforcement. 

The video captured in each case is potential evidence in a court trial. Though someone like Swopshire is unidentifiable from 200 feet up, the images provide another tool for prosecutors.

“Juries want video. We all want video. We are a video-driven society,” Bowers said. “Even though it's not critical legally maybe, does it put icing on the cake for somebody going 'OK, that guy really is fleeing I guess?'”