Spring break festivities in Panama City Beach, Fla., on March 12, 2015. (Michael Spooneybarger/Reuters)
Before a police department purchases a drone, officials are often forced to confront questions about privacy, public safety and the legal limits of government intrusion.
In South Padre Island, Tex., law enforcement officials faced an additional question before the department bought two drones ahead of this year’s influx of spring break revelers:
“How high can someone realistically chuck a can of beer?”
The answer, according to South Padre Island town spokesman Gary Ainsworth: probably a lot less than 250 feet, the height at which the department’s drones will hover above local beaches when as many as 75,000 college kids on spring break swarm the barrier-island town, which has fewer than 3,000 permanent residents.
“That’s just something you have to expect when you have that many people letting loose on a beach and they notice a robot hovering over them,” Ainsworth told The Washington Post. “I probably would have tried to knock one out of the sky with a beer can when I was in college.”
Ainsworth has matured. The police department has, too, when it comes to finding new ways to maintain order during the annual drunken deluge.
Planning for spring break in South Padre Island begins months in advance, and city officials are expecting larger crowds than usual this year, Ainsworth said. The reason: warm temperatures and a move by the Panama City Beach City Council in Florida to ban alcohol consumption on its beaches during spring break. With only a few major spring break destinations to choose from in the United States, the decision in Florida is expected to result in more college kids descending on the Texas town.
Ainsworth said the drones — Yuneec Typhoon Q500 models outfitted with high-resolution cameras and batteries that provide up to 25 minutes of flight time — are the latest example of how police plan to adjust to the swell of new partiers.
Unlike bigger cities with access to helicopters, he said, police in the Gulf Coast resort community decided to add drones to their arsenal because they wanted a way to monitor chaotic crowds from above.
“It gives us a bird’s-eye view that we wouldn’t have before,” he told The Post. “If you have an incident in a large crowd and you’re sending two officers into the middle of it, they’re vastly outnumbered, and that’s before they have any idea of what’s going on.”
Here’s another example of how police might deploy the technology, he said: “In the event a drunk college student decides he wants to run, we could use a drone to follow him instead of sending an officer to climb on the roof,” Ainsworth said.
Or, he said, “if you have a fire, you can spend a few minutes getting an aerial shot. It’s all the same principle.”
He noted that police are also hoping to use the technology to rescue swimmers in distress.
“You can hook up a life jacket to a drone and drop it to somebody who is in the water,” he said. “We’re working on that.”
COED.com has ranked South Padre Island No. 5 on its annual list of trashiest spring break destinations.
The magazine provided the following description of what to expect:
The thin strip of beach located on the southeastern border between Texas and Mexico is regarded as one of the best destinations for Spring Break year after year. Not only is it constantly packed with Texas college students, the local government and police have made it legal for all non-glass sources of alcohol to be on the beach. That’s a rarity in the United States.
Of course, it also helps that Rockstar Energy Drinks is sponsoring a huge party there this year, bringing in artists like Lil Dicky, The Chainsmokers, and Lil Jon.
The month-long party means a spike in arrests, police said. Last March, South Padre police arrested 270 people for public intoxication, according to department figures. The combined number of public intoxication arrests during the other 11 months was 294.
Although police departments across the country have been using drones for years, South Padre Island appears to be the first major domestic spring break destination to do so.
Sgt. Kirk Cesena, a public information officer at the Lake Havasu City Police Department in Arizona, told The Post that officials there are “looking into” drones but have no official time frame for putting them into action.
“It could be in the near future,” he said.
Will spring breakers care that they’re being filmed by drones?
Chad Hart, whose Inertia Tours company sells spring break party packages to students, told The Post that he expects that the drones will go largely unnoticed by a generation of kids used to being on camera.
Student travelers who use his Texas-based company’s services already sign a video release giving Inertia Tours permission to photograph them and release their images. Many of the bars on the island have multiple cameras and live-streamed events.
Amid the news cameras, music videographers and ubiquitous smartphones, Hart said, people will probably be having too much fun to care about the presence of police drones.
Hart said he welcomes the use of drones in the resort town. When he gets phone calls from parents who are worried about their kids’ safety, Hart always tells them the same thing.
“The police don’t play games when it comes to security down here,” he said. “If we don’t have security locked down, then this whole thing falls apart.”
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