Fighting crime from above


By Reggie Ellis


exeter – Someone is being held hostage at a home on your street. The Exeter Police Department has officers stationed around the house at a distance but is reluctant to close in for fear the gunman may fire on officers, or worse, on a hostage. In fact, the officers don’t know how many gunmen there are or how many hostages are being held. The only way for officers to diagnose the scene is to move in closer and look through the windows, putting the officer in a situation with too many unknowns.

But what if a camera could be mounted on something that could not only look into the windows but get an aerial view through a skylight? Instead of putting three to six officers in harm’s way, why not send in a mini helicopter that is equipped with a high definition camera to get the visuals they need in real time and being controlled from up to a mile away?

Soon, the Exeter Police Department will have such a tool at their disposal as it prepares to launch one of the first police assisted drone programs in the Valley. Exeter Police Officer Tim Guzman said Exeter purchased its drone a year ago and has been training with it as he and two other officers log the hours needed to obtain their pilot license through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“I was already getting my pilot’s license and had a lot of experience filming my son’s BMX races, so I volunteered to take over the project,” Guzman said.

Guzman said there are many applications for remote drone flight in police work. He

said an overhead view can help coordinate a perimeter around a crime scene or dangerous area. Because patrol cars on numbered on the roof, they can be moved to key positions to block traffic and protect citizens from driving into a hazardous area.

“But the officer safety aspect of this far outweighs anything else,” Guzman said.

Other uses include search and rescue, such as someone suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, when suspects flee on foot through areas that can’t be seen by an airplane, and even traffic accidents.

“Just seeing a traffic accident from an overhead view might give more insight into what caused the accident,” Officer Guzman said. “There may be applications we haven’t even thought of yet.”

When it came time to purchase a drone, the police department turned to Mark Hull, owner of All Drone Solutions. Since opening Exeter Hobbies in town in 2012, Hull has been the County’s foremost authority on drones custom built for agriculture and municipal use. Hull custom built the DSJ – Inspire I quad copter drone for EPD to be piloted by two operators – one to fly the drone and one to man the camera. The camera is a 720 high definition camera that can rotate 360 degrees and can look straight down and slightly upward.

“Some people are skeptical about the application for law enforcement,” Hull said. “But whenever its up there and they see the live video stream it really opens their eyes to the possibilities.”

Hull said the pilot can fly the drone from 1 mile away and still maintain high definition live video feed. The drone’s battery life allows for a flight time of about 25 minutes and the drone can travel up to 30 mph in a straight line without wind resistance. Typically drones are flown under 400 feet, to remain under the flight paths of commercial airplanes, and under 150 feet to get clear images from the camera.

“Not every police department can afford a helicopter or even need one, but most can afford a drone and either hire a pilot or have one trained,” Hull said. “It’s another tool they can use.”

When Exeter PD heard the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department was looking to add a drone to their department, they recommended the Sheriff’s talk with Hull first. Hull has since outfitted the Sheriff’s Department with a drone that can replace its planes for close proximity investigations, such as standoffs at a residence or a suspect on foot, as drones can be launched in a fraction of the time (about 2 minutes) it takes to mobilize actual air support in Sheriff One.

“It’s exciting to see this technology being put to use to save lives,” Hull said. “It was really just for hobbyists when it started out.”

Any time new technology is introduced into law enforcement, the potential for outrage over privacy issues arise. When Exeter PD introduced body cameras in 2014, concerns around the country were being raised about the invasion of people’s privacy. Most of those concerns have been nulled in court as most interactions with officers take place in public places where anyone can record anyone. And, in general, interactions with officers have been recorded from dash cameras for many years before the introduction of body cameras.

Drones, however, bring up different kinds of privacy issues. Police drones are streaming live video to a tablet or laptop that is then digitally recording every minute of the flight. Regardless of where the suspect is located, the drone is flying over people’s backyards. Similar to body camera recordings, Guzman said the department will delete “non-evidentiary” video after 90 days, officers must log onto the computer terminal where the recordings are stored to view them and none of the videos can be viewed or released to the public and cannot be posted on social media.

In Constitutional law, there is the question of whether or not law enforcement will need to obtain warrants to use drones. The answer is … probably not. Drones for police assistance have been in use in North Dakota since 2013 when the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department received FAA approval. So far, the Sheriff’s Department has conducted its drone missions under the guise of criminal pursuit, which does not require a warrant. The use of aerial sighting has been a common tactic of law enforcement since a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that evidence gathered by the naked eye of an officer for an aircraft is admissible in court.

“This drone won’t be used for day patrol but for specific reasons,” Guzman said.

Officer Guzman said Exeter PD should have three officers certified to fly missions in the next three to six months. Guzman said the department is planning to prepare a video that displays what types of crimes the drones will be used for and answer some of the privacy questions for the public.

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