Longmont, Colo., Police Seek Public Input on Drone Program

Before purchasing four of the unmanned aerial systems, the police department wants to start a dialogue around the technology and where they will fit in daily operations.

by Amelia Arvesen, John Bear, Daily Times-Call / January 24, 2018
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(TNS) — Longmont police has budgeted $42,000 to purchase and equip four drones that they say can be employed for a variety of uses, including traffic investigations and missing persons cases.

The department has an open house planned for early February.

"We want to get the information out there," Longmont police Deputy Chief Jeff Satur said. "We want to make sure the community understands how we plan to use them."

Satur said that the drones have not been purchased, but the department plans on outfitting the unmanned aerial vehicles with grid software for mapping traffic crashes or crime scenes and thermal imaging that can be used to locate people.

He said that the software and thermal imaging technology cost more than the drones themselves, and the budgeted money also covers radios to communicate with any aircraft in the area.

Satur said the plan calls for the department's traffic division to take one of the drones, which will be used during investigations of major crashes that require mapping of the scene.

The drones can also be used to aid in the search for missing people and, in some cases, crime suspects who are hiding from the police. Satur gave as an example the case of Mark Nuanez, who fled from police after crashing a stolen truck in Longmont and buried himself in snow in 2015.

"He was near death from the weather," Satur said. "We could have popped up a drone and used thermal imaging."

A news release from the city states that other uses of drones include assessing damage and providing aerial perspective during crime scene investigations, suspect pursuits, hostage situations, wildland fires, tracking serious crashes, natural disaster response and hazmat situations.

Satur said that police officers would be trained on how to use the devices, which require a license from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Homeowners would not be notified if a drone was being flown over their properties, unless the mission was a planned incident or training, according to the release. Any markings identifying the drones as belonging to public safety would not be visible from the ground, the city added.

For the last three years, the Boulder County Sheriff's Office has used unmanned aircraft systems, or UASs, through an agreement with the Boulder Emergency Squad, which provides pilots and drones for missions.

Reserve Deputy Stephen Meer, UAS program manager, said when the sheriff's office first introduced the program, the public was unsure of its intentions, but they've come to learn that drones are like any other tool.

"This is all about safety and about making sure there are no rights violated or laws broken while we're doing this," Meer said. "These missions are all about working to help somebody who's in trouble, like a lost child, someone with Alzheimer's, overdue hikers or for determining wildfire boundaries."

He added: "When people think of the use of drones in law enforcement, they immediately think of surveillance or Big Brother. But if you think about it, by statutory responsibility, the sheriff's office is responsible for a whole bunch of other stuff."

Meer said the program is funded through grants or in the budget, and because Boulder Emergency Squad is a volunteer organization, they save money when it comes to paying for man power.

The Firestone Police Department also utilizes drones for the same reasons, Chief David Montgomery confirmed.

In a message on Twitter, Firestone resident Chris Kampmann said, "It's the world we live in. Safety or Privacy. The line is blurry."

Vic Moss, an aerial photographer certified by the FAA to fly drones, said he participates regularly in legal discussions about drones. Having photographed in Boulder County, Moss said he's supportive of law enforcement sharing the airspace.

"That's just one prime example of how a drone can be used so much more safely than on the ground or in an aircraft," he said.

To people who oppose law enforcement's use of drones, Moss said, "They can't keep people from driving on the street in front of their house. They can't keep people from flying in airspace."

Longmont Fire spokeswoman Molly Cropp said that her department currently has one drone that was purchased in 2015 and was originally used solely for hazardous materials situations.

"It still falls under and is managed by hazmat," Cropp said. "It's mission has changed to multiple duties — preplan on buildings not in Google Earth, mapping car accidents and we have offered it up for wildland burn pattern pictures. But it has many other uses that we are still looking into."

She added that the department has six people trained to use the device, and they are all in the process of getting their FAA license.

Satur said that Longmont police don't plan on using the devices for covert activities — in part, because they are noisy and long-term surveillance would not be practical — but they will be useful in some situations where sending officers might be dangerous.

He added that in some investigations, police bring out a large ladder truck from the fire department to take photos. Drones, he reasoned, would be less intrusive to neighborhoods and safer.

"Our biggest concern is the safety of our community and the safety of our officers," he said. "We are going to make sure we are using them appropriately. They aren't a toy. They aren't for spying. They have a legitimate law enforcement purpose."

The police department is hosting a community meeting at the Safety and Justice Center, 225 Kimbark St., at 6 p.m. on Feb. 8 to inform the public about its plans.

©2018 the Daily Times-Call (Longmont, Colo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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