SELMA – The Selma Police Department has another tool in its belt that Police Chief Greg Garner said will aid in policing efforts when there are large gatherings taking place in town, or when officers are in pursuit of suspects.
The use of unmanned aircraft systems, or drones as they’re commonly known, was approved 3-2 at the June 17 Selma City Council meeting.
Council has already approved the use of cameras for video policing in 2014 and since then 58 cameras have been installed in heavily used areas in town.
The cameras are used to help police identifying crimes in progress and improve responses to emergency calls at those locations. Likewise, the unmanned aerial systems would help in similar circumstances.
In his report to the Council, Chief Garner said that video surveillance is common in public areas and events.
“When we find ourselves in a store, at an ATM, on a campus, or in a large crowd attending a special event, and observe either a stationary or airborne video camera, we draw several conclusions. First, we understand that there is a high likelihood that the camera is working, and is pointed in our direction. Secondly, we believe the images are being recorded; and while we are not sure how long the video is being kept, or what it could be used for, we have a reasonable belief that our image is being stored on tape or disc. Finally, we believe that someone is watching us live. In law enforcement, the expectation that video surveillance systems are monitored is even greater than in the private sector.”
Garner said that since drones are more effective in searching large crowds, or events that cover large portions of the city, they would be especially useful then if a crime were to happen at such as events as the annual Rotary Band Festival or Sikh parade.
If deployed and video is seen that could be useful to responding units, that information would be broadcast on an appropriate police frequency.
The report continues that when officers arrive, the personnel monitoring the cameras will continue to watch for threats to the officers’ safety and document the incident. After the call, officers may review the video, have it exported to detectives for follow-up, or booked into evidence.
Garner relayed an incident from May where video surveillance was instrumental in helping identify a suspect’s vehicle in a crime involving a firearm. The vehicle was found, the weapon recovered and suspects were arrested in less than 30 minutes
In another incident two weeks ago, Garner said a Fresno County Sheriff’s helicopter had to be called in to search an area of an estimated three to four square miles of undeveloped land for a suspect just north of Dinuba Avenue.
“We eventually captured the subject, but rather than use the helicopter, we could have had a drone deployed and it would have taken a third of the time to capture him.”
Since the department is adding a drone to the its policing efforts, the video policing policy needed to be amended and that requires Council approval.
Councilwoman Sarah Guerra asked about what the legal liabilities would be in adding a drone and if other cities are using similar equipment.
Garner answered that most major cities are using drones as are local cities such as Clovis, Reedley and Fresno. He added that officers trained to use the drone will also be required to follow Federal Aviation Administration rules while operating the drone.
“Absent a search warrant or exigent circumstances, we can’t utilize a drone anywhere a person has an expectation of privacy, specifically while they’re inside a dwelling or a business, for example, or a portion of their residential yard that’s not open to the public, like the back yard,” Garner said.
He explained that exigent circumstances would be when a person’s life was in danger or police are in hot pursuit of a suspect, “or we’ve obtained a warrant to search those areas where a person normally has an expectation of privacy.”
Mayor Scott Robertson inquired into the cost of storing the recorded images as the videos or still photographs taken from any recorded video will need to be properly stored if needed for a case.
Garner said that since the drones would be used only in certain situations and “won’t be up flying over the city on a regular basis,” the amount of data that needs storing would be limited. For data that is stored, the City will have new policies in place to protect the privacy of minors, he said. “It would have a very small impact on our data storage since it would be up and running maybe 20 minutes, as opposed to the current [video] images that are running 24/7.”
Also, the public will be notified, likely via social media websites, to notify the public whenever a drone is used in the city, Garner said.
The drone will cost $5,684.38 will be funded out of a COPS grant funds and purchased from Exeter’s All Drone Solutions. The purchase includes training, the drone itself, a battery, remote-control ipad and set up.
Councilmen Jim Avalos, John Trujillo and Louis Franco voted for the drones and members Guerra and Robertson voted against.
Selma resident Frank Hernandez voiced concerns about privacy in the use of drones.
“I’m all for public safety, but also privacy. You could have kids doing whatever their doing or a couple, so what’s to keep others’ rights from being infringed on?” Hernandez asked. “Is it willy-nilly, there’s a parade so let’s throw one in the sky and see what everyone’s doing? Or, we’re chasing a subject and it’s worked with the helicopter. Where does the line get crossed from Big Brother keeping an eye on everybody?”
Garner said the City’s new policy requires that police do not infringe on what people would normally consider private areas of their yard and that officers operate the drone in accordance with FFA rules.
Part 107 of the FAA’s rules deals specifically with small, unmanned aircraft. Those rules state that drone operators cannot fly a drone over anyone not directly participating in the operation, not under a covered structure, or not inside a covered stationary vehicle. No operations from a moving vehicle are allowed unless the drone is being flown over a sparsely populated area.