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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