Police / Fire

Hollister police start flying drones to cover crimes, fires and rescues

The program will expand to seven pilot-operators.
HPD sergeant Bo Leland is the only licensed pilot, but the department will have seven additional certified pilots by the end of August. Photo by John Chadwell.
HPD sergeant Bo Leland is the only licensed pilot, but the department will have seven additional certified pilots by the end of August. Photo by John Chadwell.
Officer Bo Leland (in shorts) pilots a drone last May during a ceremony to honor law enforcement officers who died while on duty. Photo by John Chadwell.
Officer Bo Leland (in shorts) pilots a drone last May during a ceremony to honor law enforcement officers who died while on duty. Photo by John Chadwell.

Hollister police are testing the use of drones for law enforcement and rescue work after a pilot study last month, a senior officer told the Hollister City Council on Aug. 2. 

The police department hopes to deploy drones that can conduct suspect searches, locate missing persons, check on fires, document crime scenes and investigate collisions, Sgt. Bo Leland said. 

They should be able to survey houses from above as search warrants are issued to see if anyone inside is fleeing from the back or hiding, Leland said. Drones may eventually work with the county in search-and-rescue operations.

A single drone used today came from a bid worth about $5,000. It has a thermal camera that can identify heat signatures at night and help the department find people. It has a speaker that will allow the operator to broadcast messages or warnings to those on the ground.

Leland told the council that police notified people before the July 4 weekend, after receiving numerous complaints of illegal fireworks, leading to the first launch from July 2-4. 

“We did two direct citations off the flights,” Leland added. “I issued those. We were also able to pinpoint seven other locations and we issued seven citations. The officers who witnessed the violations issued the citations after being directed to those locations by the drone.”

Leland, who oversees the department’s drone program, told council members that the effort began in 2020 after researching when and where the Federal Aviation Administration would allow them to be flown and submitting a certificate for waivers from some of the restrictions on hobbyist pilots. His program did further research into what officers could legally view.

FAA rules changed last March, allowing night flights without a certificate of authorization, which enabled HPD to begin certifying other officers as pilots. At this point, however, Leland is the only drone pilot.

HPD will certify seven other pilots this month, Leland said.

HPD policy prohibits flying drones over neighborhoods just to surveil them (see attached PDF below). Without a specific reason, such as a warrant, police drone operators must follow FAA altitude regulations and avoid intentionally recording or transmitting images of private spaces such as a home or backyard, Leland said.

“We want to be deploying these daily on patrols,” he said. “There are also tiny drones that you can deploy inside a residence that would get eyes inside without putting officers in harm’s way.”

Councilman Tim Burns, a retired police officer, asked City Attorney Jason Epperson if he had researched any liability the city might have in flying drones. Epperson would not discuss the subject at the meeting but Hollister Police Chief Carlos Reynoso said the city obtained additional liability insurance to operate the drone.

 

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John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a BenitoLink reporter and an author. He has many years experience as a freelance photojournalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer who has worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and underwent graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John has worked as a script doctor and his own script, God's Club, was released as a motion picture in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime that are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]