Drones will soon be aiding Manteca Police search for missing persons, more effectively diagram major accident scenes, help officers locate suspects fleeing on foot after bailing from vehicles, and enhance the safety of SWAT officers dealing with barricaded suspects.
Strict operational rules for the drones — purchased primarily with asset seizure funds involving ill-gotten gains from criminal activity — were explained Saturday during a community Q&A session conducted in the council chambers.
The No.1 rule is the drones cannot be deployed anywhere where there is an expectation of privacy unless a warrant is obtained or rigid rules are met regarding if a life is known to be in danger and/or a crime is in progress.
“They’re not going to be snooping in backyards,” noted Manteca Police Sgt. Paul Carmona.
Carmona said several comments on the city’s Facebook page posting regarding the use of drones contend increased safety and security are not worth the loss of privacy.
In reality, police drones are much more restricted in their legal movements than those used by hobbyists. The operator, for example, of a police drone must maintain eye contact with the drone at all times without any aid such as binoculars.
“They (police drones) can be operated over public places such as parks,” explained Detective David Bright who is the first Manteca Police officer to obtain the required FFA license.
The use of drones in public places such as parks where there is no assumption of privacy, police drones would be no different than someone using a single lens reflex camera or a smartphone to record videos or take videos.
The drones can provide live feed to a screen on the ground being monitored by officers as well as record what it is viewing. There is a heat detecting camera for searching for suspects or missing persons at night.
The most likely scenarios you will see a Manteca Police drone used include:
*when a suspect in a chase abandons their vehicle and takes off on foot typically jumping fences and running through yards, drones will be used to direct officers on the ground to where suspects are headed. The heat sensing camera — even during the day — can detect where individuals may be hiding.
*in major traffic accident investigations where there are either major injuries, fatalities, or both. They can be programmed to get photos within specific boundaries to allow investigators to map skid marks, paths of travel, and damage. Carmona said it will significantly speed up accident scene investigations and reduce officer time as well as produce 3-D like photo images the department currently can’t do by downloading the video footage into a computer program. Carmona said it will also enhance the district attorney’s ability to present strong visual evidence to juries.
*with the standard camera and heat imaging camera, officers will be able to cover a significant amount of territory in substantially less time searching for missing persons.
*allowing SWAT teams to get an aerial view of a location where suspects are barricaded to get an understanding of any issues they are dealing with including if there are other suspects hidden outside the building.
*searching rooftops for illegal homeless camping. Currently, Manteca Police have to summon a fire truck and crew when they receive a report of an individual on a roof to allow officers to use a ladder to reach the roof.
Carmona noted he expects when the fire department needs assistance where the drones would be the most effective tool that they will be calling on the police for help.
“We (the police and fire) work well together,” Carmona said.
Bright noted the larger drone that can be flown at a ceiling of 400 feet above the ground or a structure has all the required FAA lights for night operations.
Bright emphasized that the drones — that cost the department more than $20,000 — provide many of the advantages of manned air support such as helicopters but at a fraction of the cost.
“It costs $400 to $500 an hour just for the fuel alone for a manned police aircraft,” Bright said.
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