Park Forest use of drone in arrest is part of debate on use of unmanned crafts

The Park Forest Police Department posted a photo on Facebook showing an unusual angle of a crime scene. The black-and-white bird’s eye view of two officers holding down a hooded suspect depicted an arrest made with an assist from law enforcement’s latest crime stopping tool at the center of a debate over personal freedoms.

Autonomous drones and the role they should play in Illinois policing continues to be debated in the nine years since the Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act was passed. Lawmakers in 2023 passed the latest amendment, allowing police to fly drones over large public gatherings without a warrant to hopefully stop mass crime events, such as the 2022 Fourth of July mass shooting in Highland Park.

“When we pass legislation that allows law enforcement to potentially overstep privacy, I get a little wary about the slippery slope of what that could look like,” Democratic state Sen. Rachel Ventura of Joliet said after the bill passed her chamber in May. “At the same point, we have to find that balance on the spectrum between freedom and safety.”

The act also allows law enforcement to use drones to assist in crime prevention work without there being a parade, including instances where a warrant has been granted. The Park Forest Police Department put its drone in the sky Dec. 9, the day after officers first responded to a report of a person with a gun fleeing a home after making threats during a domestic altercation.

Five sergeants with the force began searching for the person, but met with negative results, police said. So, the next day, they brought in the eyes from the sky. Sgt. Haytham Elyyan, a licensed remote pilot with the Federal Aviation Administration, used the Park Forest Drone Air 1, according to the police report.

It is unclear how much time elapsed before Elyyan narrowed in on a person walking near Talala Elementary School who fit the description, how large the search perimeter was and when a warrant was obtained. Park Forest police could not be reached for clarification.

But after Elyyan believed the drone had honed in on the correct person who was believed to be armed with a gun, two more sergeants were called to the area and successfully conducted an arrest, police said. The juvenile was taken into custody, questioned and charged with possession of a stolen firearm, aggravated unlawful use of a firearm and aggravated assault.

Questions remain about how drones are being used by police throughout the state. Under the act, how many drones each municipal police force owns is tracked and published.

Illinois State Police public information officer Lt. Mike Link said the number of arrests associated with the Illinois State Police Unmanned Aircraft Systems use is not tracked.

Janet Brewer, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Governors State University, said most of the laws on use of autonomous drones are left up to the state.

“The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has not decided cases specifically regarding drone surveillance, only manned aircraft,” Brewer said.

Another unmanned aircraft bill is up for discussion in this legislative session. This time, the question is whether to allow a forest preserve or conservation district to enact ordinances regulating unmanned aircraft systems.