Orinda Police Department Will Soon Have Public Safety Drone
By SALLY HOGARTY
While helicopters have long been used as an important tool by police and fire departments, drones are one of the latest devices currently being embraced by law enforcement and fire personnel.
“Drones are an essential component to helping our officers enforce the law and protect lives,” says Orinda’s Police Chief Mark Nagel. “Not only can a bird’s-eye view enable a police officer to gain a quick understanding of the scope of a situation, but drones are highly versatile. Stored in the trunk of a police cruiser, a drone can be deployed immediately and from just about anywhere. They can also access areas that helicopters cannot, and in the event of a fire or an active shooter situation, this is critical.”
To that end, Police Officer Joe Ladner recently received training as a drone pilot, and Orinda resident Ginny Hair launched a Go Fund Me account that netted the initial funds to purchase a drone. “We have an incredibly committed police department, and I wanted to help them get the gear they need to do their job in the most effective way possible,” says Hair, the mother of Police Cadet Adam Epstein, a senior at Miramonte High School.
Officer Ladner, who has been in law enforcement since 2001 and with the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Department since 2012, embraces the new technology.
“The helicopter is a great tool, and we’re lucky to have one in Contra Costa, but it’s at Buchanan Air Field in Concord. It takes time to get it in the air where we need it, and because there isn’t a pilot at Buchanan 24/7, sometimes you have to wait for someone to drive there as well,” Ladner explains.
He also notes that a helicopter costs $4 million and an additional $700/per hour to run it.
“Having the drone in the back of one of our patrol cars will allow us to deploy in minutes,” Ladner says. “If we have a missing kid or adult, we can quickly respond, and given Orinda’s high concentration of elderly residents, some with dementia, this will be an invaluable tool.”
Officer Ladner attended a two-day course and passed an FFA test to gain his drone pilot’s license. “You can’t just pick one up and fly it,” he explains. “As law enforcement, we’re held to a higher standard than the hobbyist.”
Currently, Lafayette and Moraga have drones and Danville hopes to have one soon. Orinda has already used Lafayette’s drone on several occasions, including to find a missing Lamorinda person and to assist with a recent burglary investigation at Saint Mary’s College. “Several people broke into an office and stole a laptop. When they saw us coming, they jumped out of their car and ran into the hills,” Ladner recalls. “We used the drone to find and apprehend them.”
Encouraged by the immediate funding of its initial campaign for a standard drone, the Orinda Police Department is extending its Go Fund Me campaign to acquire enough money to purchase a drone with thermal imaging technology.
“There are things a helicopter can do that a drone cannot, but the cost of a helicopter can be a burden for a department, and when it comes to looking for missing people, using thermal imaging technology is very important,” says Ladner. “Orinda doesn’t have streetlights, so at night, it can be pitch black. The thermal imaging can pick up the heat signal from an animal, child or an adult, and there is so much detail that you can easily tell the difference. With a drone, you have that technology at a fraction of the cost of a helicopter and the ability to deploy it within minutes.”
According to Officer Ladner, residents don’t have to worry about the drone being used to invade people’s privacy. He says that while the law doesn’t require a search warrant for a drone to fly over someone’s house, the Sheriff’s office is more proactive. “Our policy is to have probable cause and get a search warrant. We get search warrants when doing surveillance on someone’s house. If we happen to spot something illegal in someone else’s yard, we can’t use that information because we didn’t have a search warrant for that property. We’re not using the drone to spy. It’s a resource to help us find missing people, injured hikers, runaway kids and to help with responses to fires and to catch the bad guys.”
The drone with thermal imaging technology the Orinda Police Department hopes to purchase costs $13,500. It comes with seven batteries, each providing two hours of flight time. According to Officer Ladner, each battery lasts around 20-30 minutes. Although the drones can go two miles away from the remote, The Orinda Police policy is to keep them within eyesight.
The drone will reside in Officer Ladner’s patrol vehicle, which includes a battery recharger and a 40” monitor. The remote control includes a dock for either a cell phone or iPad that allows the operator to see where the drone is and to navigate it around such obstacles as trees, electrical wires and other aircraft.
Ladner makes a final point: “It’s also a two-man job: a pilot and an observer. Since the pilot is flying the drone, you really need another set of eyes to keep a lookout for the missing person or suspect. With the 40” monitor, you can also use the police vehicle as a command center where the incident commander, Chief of Police, fire personnel or whoever can watch the monitor. We can record video and take photos to use later for accident or crime scene documentation.”
For more information on the Go Fund Me campaign, go to gofundme.com/Orinda-pd-drone.