Target 11 Exclusive: City of Pittsburgh paid $50,000 for drones, never used them

PITTSBURGH — It has been four years since the city of Pittsburgh purchased two high-tech drones at a cost of more than $50,000. But Target 11 Investigator Rick Earle has learned they’ve never been used. Earle wanted to know why the drones have never gotten off the ground. He questioned the city’s new public safety director, Lee Schmidt.

“The holdups I think again, I don’t know previously what they were but the main concerns were obviously you know, people always concerned about privacy, government overreach. We wanted to make sure the policy was in place to make it very clear that this was only used for search purposes, not for surveillance or law enforcement purposes,” Schmidt told Earle.

Schmidt said the biggest concern is privacy. He said he’s working on a policy that will outline the proper uses of drones by city departments. Target 11 requested a copy of that policy but so far has not received the copy.

Earle also questioned City Council President Theresa Kail-Smith, who was unaware the drones have been sitting on shelves for four years.

“I think we need to look into seeing what the delay is. Thank you for bringing that to our attention. I think we need to make sure that we have a policy that reflects what we want done here in the city of Pittsburgh, we are not spending money that we’re not going to use, on things we’re not going to use,” said Kail-Smith.

The city also spent nearly $12,000 to train several employees to operate them.

Earle asked Schmidt if the training and purchases were a waste of tax dollars.

“No, I don’t think so at all. The drones are still, this model is actually still sold, utilized. We do maintain and update them,” said Schmidt.

Schmidt said he’s confident the city will soon be flying the drones, but he said it will only be for search and rescue missions. Schmidt said they will not be used by police.

The former public safety director, Wendell Hissrich, who purchased the drones, told Target 11 that he planned to allow police to use the drones at armed standoffs and while searching for suspects.

He said they would not be used for surveillance.

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Hissrich had been working on a drone policy, but then the pandemic hit and he said the program got delayed.

A new administration took over last January and there is still little movement on the drone program.

Target 11 has learned that while the city’s drones remain grounded, the city of Pittsburgh has used drones from other law enforcement agencies.

When police needed a better view of a suicidal man who climbed the Fort Pitt Bridge, they borrowed a drone from Pennsylvania State Police. The state police have 23 drones that are used for accident reconstruction, crime scene documentation and standoffs.

The city also relied on a drone from the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office to search for a missing man along the Monongahela River near the South Side. The sheriff’s department has multiple drones of different shapes and sizes, some equipped with thermal imaging cameras for use at night.

“We found them to be very useful in what we do in law enforcement. Even in situations where we have legal authority to enter a home, we can actually fly a drone inside a home which is in the interest of not only the safety of an individual or individuals but in the safety of our deputies,” said Allegheny County Sheriff Kevin Kraus.

“If it could save officers would it be a good thing? Earle asked Schmidt.

“I do think it would be but we’re not quite there yet,” said Schmidt.

Councilman Anthony Coghill questioned why the police won’t be allowed to use the drones.

“It’s the keeping our public safety officials safe and to know what’s behind that corner is a valuable thing. As you know, we found out on many occasions with our police officers. I see a legitimate use for them absolutely,” said Coghill.

Schmidt told Target 11 that he hopes to roll out the drones by the end of this year. And he said as of now, they will only be used for search and rescue operations. But he said that could change as the program develops. Schmidt did reiterate that the drones will not be used for surveillance.