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West Valley City Journal

West Valley police drone program officially in flight

Jul 01, 2020 02:24PM ● By Travis Barton

West Valley City Police said the new drone program has already helped catch an armed suspect hiding on a water tower. (Pixabay)

By Travis Barton | [email protected]

The West Valley City Police Department has spread its wings.

It’s been a “long, laborious process” but the West Valley City Police Department’s drone program is now up and running, according to Deputy Chief Robert Hamilton.

The process included getting authorization from the Federal Aviation Authority and every local airfield, inspections and any officers who would operate the drones had to be licensed by the FAA. The police department notably sits underneath the flight path to Salt Lake International Airport, which then requires some extra flight training for the pilots. Hamilton said they are 100% compliant.

It was June 2019 when the police department presented the drone program to the City Council. But after jumping through all the necessary hoops, the program has now been up and running for the last few months.

The department currently has eight drones that patrol officers carry in their cars with thermal imaging. There is one larger drone, a Matrice 210, that has a camera with a 100 times optical zoom and thermal imaging that can be successful up to 180-200 feet.

Hamilton said the drone was already used to catch an armed suspect hiding on a water tower. The drone has a speaker and spotlights so pursuing officers could speak with the suspect.

In a video presentation to the West Valley City Council in June, Lt. Steve Burke, who oversees the program said drones are the “future of public safety.”

Hamilton agreed. “If the technology gets there, we won’t have to chase cars or do pursuits,” he said. “We can just tell a drone to follow until the guy parks or runs out of gas.”

So far, the drones are being used approximately once a week, Hamilton estimated. Most uses have been looking for missing or endangered persons or in conjunction with SWAT to offer pre-surveillance on search warrants.

Every use of the drone requires a full report, flight plan and the FAA is contacted. A drone can only be deployed with a search warrant or in the case of an exception like a fleeing suspect or a missing child or elderly person.

Drones have proved especially helpful to clear canals or large fields, Hamilton said. Before it took 20-30 officers walking in a line through a field, but now a drone can clear it in two minutes.

While searching for a lost person doesn’t require a court order, all uses with SWAT have to be approved as part of a warrant.

All drone pilots and drones are subject to call-outs in the case of a significant emergency, similar to the K9 unit. Hamilton said each drone costs close to $4,000.

The drones can fly up to 2.5-3 miles away from the controller if a line of sight is maintained and if there is not too much frequency interference. If a signal with the drone is lost, it’s programmed to return to where it took off.