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The City Journals

West Valley police introduce drone program

Jun 24, 2019 03:56PM ● By Travis Barton

West Valley City Police said the new drone program will help with search and rescue, car accident and crime scene investigations and increased officer safety among other things. (Pixabay)

By Travis Barton | [email protected]

The West Valley City Police Department is about to take flight. 

Drones will soon be a part of the police department’s toolkit. Deputy Chief Robert Hamilton and Detective Matt Jones explained how the drone program will work to the City Council on June 11. 

The department currently has two training drones, but Hamilton said they plan to have a dozen pilots for 12 small and two large drones. 

Officials said they will use the collection of drones for search and rescue, aerial mapping, more efficient investigations, improve awareness for tactical incidents and increase officer safety. 

Jones, who is program manager for all drones, said the drones will have infrared technology where it would transmit imaging to find thermal heat sources, such as a missing person or suspect. 

“It can be used in conjunction with K9 unit and can clear waterways,” Jones said. 

He even used a specific example in West Valley City: When suspects flee the neighborhood south of Stonebridge Golf Course, they often head into the golf course making it difficult to pursue in their vehicles. 

Accidents and crime scene investigations can take hours to recreate the scene, which increases cost and time to the police department. For car accidents, currently road closures are required to recreate the scene, but Jones said drones are able to collect data and measurements to produce a 3D model of a car accident to show from all angles and can zoom in. These images can then be used in court for evidence. 

Jones also explained their use in “high-hazard” scenarios for SWAT operations, suspicious items or active incidents. Police in Daytona Beach, Florida were able to find a burglary suspect hiding on a roof. He shared another law enforcement example of a duffle bag on top of a shipping container, rather than have an officer climb up to look into, they flew a drone over it to discover it was not a Thermos but a replica pipe bomb. 

“They provide an overview of the incident, this would be able to give the commander the best information possible to make the best possible decisions,” Jones said. 

Flight time for the drones is about 30 minutes, but can stream live video if perched somewhere to conserve battery. 

In order to fly the drones, pilots must be certified by Federal Aviation Authority and receive regular training with annual proficiency checks. Jones said the department has already applied for and received FAA authorization for drone operations in the local controlled airspace. 

Officials said they are planning to set up the program compliant with laws as well as forecast the future to avoid potential issues. 

“We’re erring on the side of caution,” Hamilton said, highlighting how they require a warrant anytime they fly for an investigative purpose. 

“In general, in order to fly a drone, you have to meet the exact same warrant standards,” Hamilton explained. “So I can’t fly a drone into somebody’s backyard” unless the warrant exceptions are met like public safety or consent from the homeowner. 

State law also says all footage must be deleted unless there is evidence on the video. Armed drones are illegal. 

Drone use has increased over the years and become increasingly popular for use within each state’s county and local governments. The Bard College Center for the Study of the Drone reported an 82 percent increase of drone use by public safety agencies from 2016 to 2017. 

Jones said they’ve had two requests in the last month to fly the drone. 

Hamilton believes once it’s out there it’ll be used frequently.” He said Broward (Florida) County Police “run their drone program like their K9 cars.” 

“I anticipate it’ll be used a lot,” Hamilton said. “I think every private business is looking at how drones are going to affect them. I want to get up in the air before Amazon does.”