VALDOSTA — A Valdosta Police Department officer was arrested last week in Lanier County after neighbors reported a drone eavesdropping on them.
The officer has since been fired from his position.
Howard Kent Kirkland, 53, was arrested Thursday at the Valdosta Police Department Headquarters by the Lanier County Sheriff’s Office. The two agencies worked together to arrange for Kirkland’s arrest, according to VPD.
Kirkland is charged with felony eavesdropping/surveillance, according to the VPD.
The charges stem from an incident that allegedly occurred while he was off duty at his residence in Lanier County.
Saturday, The Valdosta Daily Times was contacted by an alleged victim in the incident who stated a flying drone with audio and video capabilities were used to “spy” on his family.
“It did involve a drone he used as a hobby,” said VPD Chief Brian Childress. “He was using that drone to fly over people’s backyards. The Lanier County Sheriff’s Office was made aware of it, and they filed charges against him.”
Childress said he first became aware of complaints in June when Lanier deputies encouraged Kirkland to stop flying the drone. Lanier County received several complaints concerning Kirkland flying a drone in June and July, according to Lanier County authorities.
“He was initially told to stop any activity that could constitute an invasion of privacy, but he continued to do it. Lanier County continued to investigate and filed arrest warrants,” said Childress.
After his arrest, Kirkland was placed on suspension without pay. His employment was then terminated Monday morning after Childress reviewed additional evidence at the Lanier County Sheriff’s Office.
“I agree Lanier County had substantial evidence to initiate and investigation,” said Childress. “We also had several policy violations we identified that he violated.”
Lanier County Sheriff Charles “Nick” Norton said drone operators should “always err on the side of caution.”
“The use of ‘drone’ or unmanned surveillance aircraft in and around residential areas is something that needs to be approached very carefully by persons who buy and use such devices,” said Norton. “I think we will see additional legislation concerning these devices and their potential for abuse addressed soon by lawmakers and possibly see a more rigid set of guidelines concerning their use in and around populated areas.”
Norton said he appreciated the victims in the case contacting law enforcement instead of taking “more drastic measures." He also said he appreciated the assistance and cooperation of Childress and VPD.
Childress said he was proud of the “in-depth work” of the Lanier County Sheriff’s Office, stating if police officers do not police themselves, then they “violate the trust of the community.”
“Am I sad this happened? Yes. Am I happy we police our own? Yes,” said Childress. “I regret it happens, but at the end of the day police are no different than anyone else. If they commit a crime, we are going to charge them.”
Lanier County Sheriff's Office is continuing to investigate the incident, but additional charges are not expected to be filed in the case, said a LCSO spokesperson.
Adam Floyd is a crime reporter at the Valdosta Daily Times.