Treasure Valley police dabble in drones as prices drop, rules for use multiply

Canyon County's investment in drone technology

Mark Tolman, the Canyon County fleet manager, talks in May 2017 about the Idaho county's hope of upgrading its drone technology.
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Mark Tolman, the Canyon County fleet manager, talks in May 2017 about the Idaho county's hope of upgrading its drone technology.

When an armed man suspected of firing on a police officer fled into a Kuna neighborhood last January, the Ada County Sheriff’s Office turned to a number of methods to find him — including a drone.

The sheriff’s office doesn’t have its own drone. But the Nampa Police Department has access to one, and it offered to help.

“That information proved essential to locating Ramon Milanez,” sheriff’s spokesman Patrick Orr said of the hunt for the Kuna shooting suspect.

Orr declined to offer specifics on how the drone was used. But deputies and police were waiting when Milanez backed a stolen car out of a garage. He died at the scene after authorities struck the car with an armored vehicle and exchanged gunfire with him, witnesses told the Statesman.

Most examples aren’t so high-profile — but the use of drones is an emerging trend for law enforcement agencies across the country. Some departments in the Treasure Valley already use them on a limited basis, while others are studying best uses and practices before obtaining one.

Also evolving: The laws

As of last year, the Federal Aviation Administration regulates the use of drones — known formally as “unmanned aircraft systems,” or UAS. Like everyone else, law enforcement agencies must have trained pilots operating their machines.

The Ada County Sheriff’s Office has selected eight deputies to be trained to be drone pilots. It’s developing a program that will allow the agency to borrow a drone from the county’s Information Technology office. (That’s the office that in recent weeks has produced videos of flood-prevention efforts along the Boise River.)

Idaho State Police have acquired six drones over the past year — one for each of ISP’s districts around the state, according to spokesman Tim Marsano. The DJI Phantom Quadcopters cost about $1,500 each. The one in the Boise region is used about three times a month.

“Our main goal is to use them to document crash scenes in order to get traffic flowing faster,” he said. “We use them for our own crash scenes and (to) assist other law enforcement agencies.”

They’ve also been used for hazmat incidents, barricaded suspects, searches for endangered people and at various crime scenes.

Privacy advocates have sounded warning bells about Big Brother secretly watching us from the sky. That’s why some states, including Idaho, have privacy restrictions on what police can do with drones. Here, law enforcement agencies must get a warrant to perform surveillance with a drone on a person or property, with some exceptions: No warrant is needed for public safety emergencies, search and rescue operations and drug investigations.

The conversation took on a different tone last summer, when Dallas police ended a standoff with a man who murdered five police officers by attaching a bomb to a robot and detonating it next to him. The explosion killed the man, with many experts deeming it an unprecedented use of technology.

Very few state legislatures have taken on the question of drone-mounted police weapons, and it’s not clear yet how practical or viable such a setup is for a local agency.

North Dakota was the first in the nation to ban lethal weapons on drones; the same legislation allowed for nonlethal weapons such as stun guns, rubber bullets or tear gas. Connecticut is currently considering a law that would ban everyone, except police, from using weaponized drones.

Canyon County drone helped save a life

Most Treasure Valley police departments don’t have drones, including Boise, Meridian, Garden City and Caldwell. That may change: Boise police are researching the topic, interested in help with everything from crime scene mapping to checking business rooftops when their alarm systems go off.

Canyon County officials, on the other hand, have had a drone for five years.

Its sheriff’s office and fire agencies within the county share a drone obtained in 2012 through a grant from the Idaho Office of Emergency Management.

The Draganflyer X6 cost more than $30,000 at that time. Prices have come down significantly in the past five years — when the county replaces the drone with a different model this year, it will pay a fraction of that cost.

The drone is maintained by county Fleet Director Mark Tolman, who keeps track of all sorts of county vehicles and other machines: sheriff’s SUVs, boats, ATVs and lawnmowers.

Tolman, a reserve deputy and a licensed pilot who has a personal drone, is one of three county employees trained to operate the county’s bird. The others are Caldwell Deputy Fire Chief Steve Donahue and emergency dispatcher Christine Wendelsdorf.

The drone has been used on a couple of fires, providing a visual on where a fire was burning to guide water streams where they were most effective.

And, it’s been a part of multiple search and rescue situations, locating people in two separate missing-person cases.

In one incident, the person was dead. In another, the drone helped save a life, Tolman said. He declined to offer details to protect the privacy of the victims and their families.

Another possible use: “We practice for (an) active shooter,” Tolman said. “We have not had to use it for that yet. But we’re ready for it.”

Canyon County officials have never considered the use of weaponized drones, Tolman said, and the idea goes against the standard practices for the sheriff’s office.

‘A good tool ... used properly’

The city of Nampa purchased a Phantom 4 drone about a year ago. The drone, three batteries, a case and vision guard cost $2,071. Training for two people was $550.

Vickie Holbrook, communications director for the city, said the drone is part of her “toolbox.” She and one city police officer were trained to fly it.

“It gives the city another way to tell Nampa’s story, show Nampa residents progress the city has made on a project or work we need to do in the city,” said Holbrook.

“Right now, we’re collecting images of areas that our economic development director can share with companies looking for sites to relocate. The aerial views provide a lot of information.”

The city drone is kept under lock and key in Holbrook’s office, which is part of the mayor’s office.

With the mayor’s approval, the drone can be used to aid city police investigations. Nampa Police Chief Joe Huff said his department has sought use of the drone several times, including the assist for Ada County.

It was used after the body of 18-year-old Sage Thompson was found along a creek in February. “We thought there might be a backpack or some clothes left along the side of the canal bank,” Huff recalled. “We asked for permission to fly along the canal roads. It was safer, so we didn’t have to have our folks walking along a slick canal bank. They flew it a half-mile in each direction.”

The department also used it to respond to an armed man barricaded in a house, possibly with a high-powered rifle. Police were about a quarter-mile away — too far to send a slow-moving robot, particularly in icy conditions.

“There was no way to safely approach the house,” Huff said. So his officers used the drone to get a 360-degree look at the house, especially to find its windows and doors. Once they got a door open, they flew the drone inside and found the man dead.

Last week, investigators used the drone to search for three 17-year-old Meridian robbery suspects who had fled into a field in the Nampa area. Though the drone didn’t find them, they were later arrested in Nampa, Huff said.

He’s keenly aware of the public’s concerns about privacy.

“It’s a good tool for law enforcement, as long as it’s used properly,” he said.

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413, @KatyMoeller