I’ve been a TV news reporter/videographer for many years and have been at all types of crime scenes: shootings, stabbings, arson fires, hostage takings, and even the crash site of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania shortly after the plane went down. I thought I knew the rules of crime reporting/videography until I was requested to shoot drone footage of a crime scene along the Pennsylvania Turnpike where three people died.
If you’re thinking of listening to the police radio, and heading out with your drone to shoot a crime scene or a car crash, I urge you to think twice for several reasons. If your motivation is a pay day you’ll likely be disappointed. Several of the biggest group owners of TV stations will not touch drone footage. The companies believe their is some sort of liability on their end and TV stations don’t pay viewers for news video; even if it is from a drone. Second, if you don’t have experience with law enforcement or the fire service expect to be denied access at road blocks. And finally, you need to understand the TV news process of putting together a story so you shoot pictures that will work on TV news. My experience at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Toll Plaza will illustrate.
First, my Section 333 exemption hasn’t been granted by the FAA as of this writing so I was flying as a drone enthusiast which means I couldn’t accept payment even if it was offered. I was stopped at a road block at least a mile from the scene. My experience in news has been almost all road blocks have a way around them. You look for the side roads, and in this case, a side road that was close enough to hike into the scene from. Many police agencies don’t appreciate their perimeters being violated, so unless you are willing to accept the consequences, turn around and go home. Flying from the road block was not an option since the drone would have been out of my sight and likely out of radio range.
The photo with this post is the crime scene. As you can see it covers a large area and all the flashing lights are gone. The action has been over for hours. If you didn make it to the scene imagine how disappointed you’d be in light of the risks and effort to get there. You might be tempted not to fly because the pictures are so boring. But does the lack of action make your pictures any less important? No it does not. Shooting a blazing house fire is easy; it is eye candy. Shooting a static crime scene like this requires creativity because you have to anticipate what pictures a reporter will need to support the story they write.
At this point you’ve accepted that the only benefit of flying maybe a shot to post on social media. Now you have to figure out how to capture this large crime scene while obeying federal law and FAA guidance that you cannot fly over emergency response efforts. Since there was no immediate action to capture my first step was to learn as much as possible about the story from witnesses and other news people. Taking the time to talk revealed vital pieces of information about how to fly the scene. The most critical piece of information was that the overall crime scene was made up of three smaller crime scenes. The first of the three smaller crime scenes was the tollbooth plaza in the middle right of the picture. The building right next to the toll plaza is scene two, and scene three is where you see the red van in the left-center of the picture. It could be argued that there was no emergency response effort underway at the time I was flying, but I didn’t want to argue my case with police so I kept the done behind police lines at all times. No attempt was made to enter the airspace over the scene.
According to state police the crime started at about 7 a.m. when the gunman confronted two turnpike employees working at one of the toll booths. He displayed a handgun, forced them into the nearby office building and attempted to tie them up. A struggle followed and the gunman took off. The employees managed to free themselves and followed the gunman outside. Coincidently a toll collection vehicle arrived at the interchange. One of the two employees the gunman first encountered approached the collection vehicle and got the passenger out. The gunman fatally shot the pair and then continued shooting at the vehicle. The driver got out and was able to escape on foot. The gunman then got into the toll collection vehicle and drove it a short distance across PA. 522, which is the road being blocked by the orange truck, to an area where his own vehicle was parked. He began unloading money into his vehicle. The first state trooper to arrive encountered the gunman from a distance, and the two exchanged gunfire. The gunman was shot, and died at the scene.
Now that you know what happened you can see how this one shot was so important in telling the story. It helped viewers understand how the small events formed into a large crime. It was a shot that could only come from a drone and why I believe every newsrooms will one day have a drone journalist, not just a drone pilot.
See the finished story here: WTAJ Turnpike Shooting Story