Keizer Police drone program saves time and lives

Keizer Police Sgt. David LeDay demonstrates the operation of a DGI Mini police drone

Keizer Police Department’s drone program saves officers time, reduces risk, and saves money.

In the past, when Keizer Police Department responded to a major traffic accident, getting topographical, or top-down images of the accident scene was almost always required.  This would involve at least four hours along with a fire department ladder-truck to hoist an officer above the scene for photographs.

“It wasn’t the safest way to get that done and it would cost hundreds of dollars to deploy a ladder-truck to a major accident scene,” said Sgt. David LeDay, Keizer Police Department. “Now within 20 minutes of getting approval, a single officer can get multiple photographs from different angles.”

LeDay said the department calls them Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (SUAS), largely to differentiate them from the much larger and more advanced Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) systems used by the military. The devices used by KPD are all commercially-available – two Phantom 4s which are deployed from the station, and six DGI Mini models which can be carried by traffic officers in a trunk or saddlebag.

LeDay has been using the SUAS, and training other officers on them, since the department obtained its first drone five years ago as part of an interagency accident re-creation team comprised of KPD, Salem Police Department and Marion County Sheriff’s office.  He coordinates the overall program for the department.

Major traffic accidents aren’t the only place KPD uses the SUAS, but LeDay said it’s the most common, as there are lots of restrictions on how and when a SUAS can be used in law enforcement. 

The technology has advanced far enough to allow officers to fly the DGI Minis inside buildings for reconnaissance.  According to LeDay, this can be both a force-multiplier and a valuable way to keep people safe.

“If we’re authorized to do a search, we can deploy the minis inside buildings,” he said. “So for example when we sent one into a mobile home after a report of a burglary, the mini was able to identify who was inside without putting an officer or a K9 in any danger.”

In another example, LeDay described how the SUAS had been used in a recent felony traffic stop.

“We had five guys inside a stolen vehicle,” he said. “Four of them followed commands and exited the vehicle, but one guy stayed inside.  With the SUAS we were able to see his hands and determined there was no weapon, allowing us to safely move in take him into custody.”

LeDay said this was important for public safety, because when officers move in to a potentially dangerous situation, anything that even looks like a weapon could get someone hurt or killed.

“It could end up a tragedy,” he said. “It’s risk management at its best.”

LeDay said the drones are most useful at accident scenes to get different angles, and they can fly a grid pattern over a large area which can provide exact measurements in conjunction with specially-designed placards placed on the ground and used as reference points.

“From there, we’re able to do our diagramming,” he said. “The gimbal system on the cameras can get an exact ninety degree angle.  We can actually produce a three-dimensional diagram from that if we need to.”

He said the public has a lot of misconceptions about what how the SUAS is used by law enforcement.  “Oregon has some of the most restrictive laws in the U.S. around the use of UAS for law enforcement,” he said. “A lot of people think we can just put them up to spy on people, but even if we had equipment that could do that, we wouldn’t be using it to spy on people.”

LeDay said that the requirements for utilizing the SUAS system were very similar to the restrictions surrounding private search and seizure, so KPD isn’t authorized to use it for any purpose outside its designated one. Even if an officer has probable cause to deploy it during a search, they would be required to follow the same procedure as a physical search, including obtaining a signed affidavit from a judge within 48 hours.

“I’m very happy about the restrictions, to be honest,” he said. “they provide accountability and help protect everyone involved.”

Before an officer can operate an SUAS, they have to be fully certified and they each have to do eight hours of mandatory quarterly training, as well. LeDay said all of the questions on the certification test come from the fixed-wing aircraft pilot’s program, with a focus on FAA regulations and use of airspace.

LeDay said the department is also looking at expanding the program to include drones with thermal imaging capability, further reducing risk to officers and the public.