The Park Forest Police Department posted a photo on Facebook showing an unusual angle of the scene. The black-and-white bird’s-eye view of two police officers holding a hooded suspect depicted an arrest made with the help of law enforcement’s latest crime-stopping tool at the center of a debate over civil liberties.
Autonomous drones and the role they should play in Illinois law enforcement continue to be debated in the nine years since the Drone Surveillance Act was passed. Lawmakers passed a final amendment in 2023 that would allow police to fly drones over large public gatherings in hopes of stopping mass crime incidents like the July 4 mass shooting in Highland Park in 2022.
“I’m a little wary of what that might look like when we pass a law that potentially allows law enforcement to invade privacy,” Democratic state Sen. Rachel Ventura of Joliet said after the bill passed the House in May. “At the same point, we need to find the balance between freedom and security.”
The law also allows law enforcement to use drones to assist crime prevention efforts without a parade, including when a search warrant has been issued. The Park Forest Police Department launched the drone into the sky on Dec. 9, the day after officers first responded to a report of a gunman running away from a home after making threats during a domestic dispute.
Police said five police sergeants began searching for the person but were met with negative results. So the next day they brought the eyes from the sky. Sergeant. Haytham Elyyan, a remote pilot licensed with the Federal Aviation Administration, operated Park Forest Drone Air 1, according to the police report.
It is unclear how long it took for Elyyan to capture a person matching the description walking near Talala Elementary School, how large the search area was, and when a search warrant was obtained. Park Orman police could not be reached for comment.
However, police said that after Elyyan believed the drone was targeting the correct person, who was believed to be armed, two more sergeants were called to the area and police made a successful arrest. The juvenile was taken into custody, questioned, and charged with possession of a stolen firearm, felony unlawful use of a firearm, and aggravated assault.
Questions remain about how drones are used by police across the state. Within the scope of the law, the number of UAVs owned by each police force is monitored and published.
The number of arrests related to the use of Illinois State Police Unmanned Aircraft Systems is not tracked, said Lt. Mike Link, Illinois State Police public information officer.
Janet Brewer, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Governors State University, said most laws regarding the use of autonomous drones are left up to the state.
“But the U.S. Supreme Court has not decided cases specifically related to drone surveillance, only manned aircraft,” Brewer said.
Another drone bill will be debated this legislative session. This time the question is whether a forest preserve or conservation district should be allowed to enact regulations regulating unmanned aerial vehicle systems.