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San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Expands Drone Program

The drones have supplemented the agency’s work to the point that going on without them is not an option, according to officials.

(TNS) -- When two bodies were found this week at a home in rural Descanso, the scene of an apparent murder-suicide, sheriff’s deputies deployed an investigative tool that’s becoming common for the department in homicide cases.

They sent in a drone.

“I can’t think of one recently where we didn’t have a drone,” said homicide Lt. Rich Williams.

The unmanned aircraft — the same kind found on the shelves at any electronics store — flew over the house where the bodies were discovered, giving investigators a bird’s-eye view of the scene and capturing photos and video from various perspectives.

Over the past year, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has used drones in more than 70 incidents, including homicide investigations, SWAT incidents and search-and-rescue missions.

“This technology is fantastic, and it’s extremely useful,” Williams said. “It's the quickest, easiest and most effective way to get video and still images without having to use a helicopter, which obviously can't get into places a drone can."

Last October, the Sheriff’s Department became the first local law enforcement agency to launch a drone program — at a cost of $125,000 — which proved to be so successful that they plan to continue using the devices. The department has budgeted $165,000 for the program’s second year.

Other local agencies have followed suit.

Four police departments — in Oceanside, Escondido, Carlsbad and Chula Vista — now have at least one unmanned aircraft. National City police officials say they’re interested in the technology.

“I think it’s proven to be such a valuable asset. More valuable than we thought it would be,” sheriff’s Lt. Jason Vickery said of the drone program, which he oversees.

The use of drones has drawn concerns in the county and across the country from civil liberties advocates who worry the devices could lead to unwarranted surveillance or violations of privacy.

From the outset, sheriff’s officials said the department’s policy prohibited using drones for mass or random surveillance and that it banned weaponizing the devices. Vickery said the same rules will be in place moving forward.

He said the department did not receive any complaints from the public during the program’s first year.

“That I can recall, I have not had any negative feedback ,” the lieutenant said.

Since last October, deputies have flown drones on 76 “missions” in San Diego County. A review of department data shows that the most common uses for the unmanned aircraft were in homicide investigations and SWAT incidents.

“It’s a game changer when it comes to these units,” Vickery said.

At outdoor scenes of homicides or officer-involved shootings, deputies use the camera-equipped aircraft to capture footage, from the sky and close to the ground, to use in investigations. The devices may also help spot any evidence that needs to be collected.

When SWAT deputies are sent to detain a person — who may be holed up in a home and possibly armed, for instance — deputies deploy drones to scan the immediate surroundings of the residence and monitor the suspect. This can help the deputies gather crucial information as a situation unfolds, without putting them in harm’s way.

"It gives us a perspective that we wouldn't get from anywhere else," Vickery said.

The department has a helicopter to provide deputies with aerial views when needed, but the much smaller drones can be maneuvered into hard-to-reach areas and hover at lower levels.

The technology has been so useful that the Sheriff’s Department has expanded its program from six to 10 drones. Each model costs $500 to $2,000.

The department has also increased the number of deputies trained to fly the devices. There are now 11 deputies in the county who are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to operate the drones, with another two in training. A year ago, only four deputies were licensed.

And the department has two mobile command vehicles, used to store and transport the equipment, and there are plans to purchase a third. One of the vehicles is stationed in North County and the other in South County, so deputies can get to scenes and set up more quickly, Vickery said.

Sheriff’s officials said they plan to purchase a water-proof drone so it can be used in rainy weather.

Three of the department’s 10 drones can be fitted with infrared cameras and strobe lights for nighttime use. Officials must get special permission from the FAA to fly the drones at night.

"What we've learned over the last year is that there's certain limitations with each (drone)," Vickery said. "We don't have one that can do it all."

Under federal regulations, law enforcement agencies are prohibited from flying a drone above 400 feet and must keep the devices in sight while they’re in the sky. Authorities are also required to notify the FAA where they plan to fly the drones.

The Carlsbad Police Department has four drones — each priced between $1,200 and $3,500 — and is awaiting certification from the FAA to fly the devices, which will be used primarily in situations involving the SWAT team, said police Cpl. Shaun Lawton.

He said the department used a drone in March when SWAT officers helped serve a search warrant at a home in Vista, in an area that did not require FAA clearance. Safety was a concern, he said, because the suspect reportedly had semi-automatic weapons.

Officers in Escondido used drones twice this year for officers’ safety when a SWAT team helped serve a search warrant, spokesman Lt. Justin Murphy said. The Police Department has three drones, valued between about $1,400 and $1,800.

In Chula Vista, police and fire departments share two $2,000 drones, intended to help search for missing people, assess the risks and path of a fire, and take video or photos of crime scenes.

Vickery said he understands the concerns over drones and believes “the public is going to become more comfortable with (the devices)” as more law enforcement agencies continue to use them.

“I truly think this is going to become such an accepted tool in law enforcement," he said.

©2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.