HPD Drone

The Healdsburg Police Department participated in a drone training session to prepare for their new drone program. Photo provided courtesy Healdsburg Police

Drone would be used for public safety situations, crime scene investigation, search and rescue and more

The Healdsburg Police Department is currently in the training and practice phase of launching an unmanned aerial system (UAS) drone program, a program that could help the department with public safety and life preservation situations, search and rescue scenarios, crime scene investigations, disaster response and fire response and prevention.

The program is still in its infancy and has not yet been fully implemented according to Healdsburg Police Chief Kevin Burke.

In order to start the program, the police department must obtain a certificate of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as well as complete several training sessions, and develop a safety plan.

Because of this, Burke estimates that the program won’t be fully operational until the summer season of this year.

Burke said the implementation of a drone program has been an ongoing conversation for some time between the police department, the city manager and Healdsburg Fire Chief Jason Boaz.

“Initially when the city council adopted the city’s strategic plan about a year ago, one of the stated goals for public safety, police and fire was to seek technological enhancements that would benefit public safety and would allow the police department to do its job a bit better. In keeping with that, we looked for different methods to move forward with that goal and we’ve been having the drone conversation for several years,” Burke said during a presentation on the program at the Jan. 4 Healdsburg City Council meeting.

“We decided to incorporate this into our formal police department budgeting goals for the current fiscal year and for the next fiscal year and we formulated a police department specific goal to start a drone program in the next fiscal year,” he said.

The topic of police drone use came to Monday’s council meeting after Councilmember Skylaer Palacios requested a report on the matter following a note from a resident who claimed they saw a drone flying around town.

“I know there was some discussion at the last council meeting about what we use the drones for. So far, and the answer to that question is, the only time a police department employee has flown a drone to date here at the city of Healdsburg has been for training purposes and that was about two weeks ago at the city corps yard. The notion that we are already out there and flying these drones and using them on a regular basis is not accurate,” Burke said.

During the same week of the training session there was also a drone demonstration at the city’s sewer plant, according to Burke.

Drones have been used in law enforcement for many years and are used locally by the Sonoma County Sheriff, the Santa Rosa Police Department, the Cloverdale Police Department and Sonoma County Code Enforcement.

The overall use of a UAS is governed by FAA regulations, and only on-duty, trained, authorized personnel may deploy and operate the drones. Those who operate the drones also must have an FAA drone license and pass an FAA test for drone operation.

Burke said Healdsburg Police officers who pilot the drone will have to go through “a pretty extensive training” process.

The police department does not intend to use the drones as emergency first responders, rather the drones will be used in specific situations such as in search and rescue situations or in crime scene investigation.

Authorized uses for the drone include:

●             Public safety and life preservation — barricades, hostage, active shooter, apprehension of violent or armed and dangerous suspects and/or fleeing subjects, search warrants and arrest warrants.

●             Search and rescue.

●             Crime scene investigation.

●             Disaster response.

●             Fire response and prevention.

●             Non-law enforcement applications in support of other department requests.  

“Looking for a hiding or a fleeing suspect, search warrants, arrest warrants, those are the typical law enforcement, public safety, life preservation uses for it. In certain situations, we could use a drone to approach somebody who might otherwise be unsafe to approach with police officers and it could potentially diffuse a situation,” Burke explained.

The drone could also be helpful in search and rescue situations.

“We had a lost autistic boy up in the Healdsburg Open Space Area near Parkland Farms and we had a mission critical senior citizen who had dementia and this (the drone) would have enabled us to search. The drone would have the ability to find them in those areas because it can have infrared capability,” he said.

A drone could also be used to survey a traffic accident scene for investigation purposes.

Burke said Boaz mentioned that the drone could be very advantageous in fire and fire prevention-related work as well.

“The uses for this drone extend far beyond police department use, the planning department indicated they would have a need for it and the electrical utility could take a look at their transformers, so there would be a lot of different applications for authorized uses,” Burke said.

Prohibited uses of the drone include:

●             To conduct random surveillance activities.

●             To target a person based solely on actual or perceived characteristics such as race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, economic status, age, cultural group, or disability.

●             To harass, intimidate or discriminate against any individual or group.

●             To conduct personal business of any type.

●             To monitor marches or protests.

●             It will not be used to identify unreported criminal activity or to develop leads to unreported criminal activity, or to circumnavigate the search warrant process.

 Additionally, the drone will not be weaponized.  

In addition to FAA regulations and standards, police department policy will also govern drone use and will address privacy concerns.

“I’m very happy with our policy. It incorporates recommendations from Lexipol, which is the company that is our lead entity in recommending and informing us on best practices and policies,” he said.

Burke said any use of the drone would have to be approved by a supervisor and would have to be reviewed by the police chief and would have to fit in with the aforementioned authorized uses. 

Every six months the police department will publicly list every time the drone is used, how long it’s used for, what it was used for and where it was used.

This information would also be added to the department’s annual city council report on police activity. It would also be noted when the drone is used by other city departments.

In terms of privacy, the use of the drone must adhere to FAA regulations, it cannot record or transmit images of any locations where a person would have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as residences, yards or enclosures.

Anyone who participates in the flying of the drone will have to complete a privacy, civil rights and civil liberties training. A privacy impact assessment will also be completed for each authorized application prior to the use of the drone.  

Burke said the importance of adhering to privacy policies will be “ingrained” in staff throughout drone training, use and in practice.

Following Burke’s report, Councilmember David Hagele asked if the electric utility department could use the drone to inspect lines. Electric utility director Terry Crowley said it could be used for that purpose, but you’d need a drone pilot to work with a utility worker. High winds may also make drone inspections difficult and since most of the Healdsburg lines are in accessible locations they can be inspected on foot.

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