Portsmouth, N.H., Police Make Case for Expanded Drone Program

Police officials propose that a three-officer team manage the program, which would be used in emergency situations and for security purposes during large gatherings. The tools would also be available to other departments.

by Elizabeth Dinan, Portsmouth Herald / April 24, 2019
Portsmouth, N.H. Shutterstock/Erika J Mitchell

(TNS)  — Police officials on Tuesday heard plans for a three-officer team to lead a drone program, run by the Portsmouth Police Department, but available to area communities.

They also heard about plans to address privacy rights while using drones during emergencies and large-crowd events.

Police officer James Noury, Lt. Christian Cummings and detective Eric Widerstrom are starting the drone program with a $69,638 Homeland Security grant, it was announced during the April 23 Police Commission meeting.

Noury obtained his drone-piloting license and has been practicing with two of his own drones during his off-duty time, police said.

Cummings and Widerstrom began taking a training course in February and will take the licensing test in May. Cummings said the team is planning to purchase one large drone with two cameras; one with the ability to zoom in for surveillance purposes and the other with infrared technology.

Cummings said the drones will also provide situational awareness for members of the Seacoast Emergency Response Team deployed to high-risk emergencies.

"It's an eye in the sky where we wouldn't normally have one," he told commissioners Joe Onosko and Jim Splaine.

Commissioner Stefany Shaheen was not present for the April 23 Police Commission meeting and disconnected during an effort to attend by phone, so no votes were taken because of a lack of quorum.

During his presentation, Cummings recalled a 16-hour SERT event in Somersworth several years ago when the terrain prevented an armored vehicle from accessing one side of a building and a creek obstructed another side. He said police learned hours later that a suspect had gone out a window and fled, but if the SERT team had a drone, it would have seen the escape and "saved countless man hours."

Cummings showed images from a downtown Portsmouth stabbing scene last summer which, he said, took an officer 1 1/2hours to photograph. He said a drone could capture the same images in 9 minutes.

With drone-enhanced thermo imaging, Cummings said, suspects and missing persons can be found in the dark. Onosko said that technology will also keep officers safe.

In addition to the large drone, Cummings said, the police program will likely also include two or three "medium sized" drones. He said drone battery life is limited and with a couple of backup drones, surveillance during emergencies could remain ongoing. While a battery was replaced in one, he noted, another can be deployed.

If a large area is being watched, Cummings noted, more than one drone could be deployed at a time.

A drone could be perched on a rooftop and take the place of a "sky tower" police have borrowed to use during the past two Halloween parades, police said. Less officers would be needed to provide the same surveillance, he said.

Cummings said fire officials have expressed interest in adding gas-detection technology to a drone and the city has received the required FAA clearance to fly drones.

Noury showed the commissioners two small drones and said the SERT officers who have reviewed the technology call it "a game changer." Cummings said the drone team will operate like the SERT team, in that he'll review requests for a drone response and confer with Police Chief Robert Merner before deploying one or more of the team.

Merner said the program is being implemented with no additional compensation to the involved officers.

All data collected from drones will be stored in an encrypted manner on dedicated servers with no online access, Cummings said. Merner said the separate database prevents accidental and intentional access to the information.

For transparency purposes, Cummings said, every time a drone is used, it will be logged with corresponding details and the information will be posted on the Police Department website. He said every drone flight will be recorded with information about the time, the place, purpose, the officers involved and the type of operation.

"Anyone from the public can go and see that information for every use," Cummings said.

Onosko said the Police Commission will be monitoring the drone program to ensure privacy rights are respected "while using this incredible technology."

Police business manager Karen Senecal reminded that the Homeland Security grant, which pays for the technology and training, requires that it be available throughout the region. Cummings said Hampton police, thinking Portsmouth already had a drone, recently called for one so, "local agencies are going to be looking for our help."

Onosko said he's glad civil rights are being protected by the drone policies and procedures. Splaine asked how drone complaints would be addressed.

"Just like any other complaint," Cummings assured.

©2019 Portsmouth Herald, N.H. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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