Use Of Drones By Police In Idaho Are On The Rise

May 30, 2017

Credit Chris Lehman / Northwest News Network

Scenarios in which police use drones for investigations keep going up and up.

Idaho State Police, which is about a year into its program of using unmanned aircraft to get birds-eye views of crash and crime scenes, has six drones and 13 pilots throughout the state, according to the Coeur d'Alene Press.

"Our missions to fly have started to pick up," ISP Capt. John Ganske said during a demonstration last week at the agency's District 1 office in Coeur d'Alene.

"We're averaging about three per month (statewide). As we have good results, we'll be using them even more."

Ganske said ISP has used drones for a variety of situations, including when suspects barricade themselves inside buildings, fatal accidents, officer-involved shootings, hazardous materials scenarios, natural disasters and to assist other agencies.

Drone footage increases the efficiency and safety of investigations, said Ganske, a drone pilot and director of ISP's drone program.

"Drones have helped us expedite investigations to get traffic flowing again," he said. "They give us views that we can't get on the ground. They also make it safer for responders."

And the scenarios are becoming more widespread.

Ganske said a drone was recently flown through a door in a residence in Nampa to get a view of a suspect.

The technology was also used to find a veteran in the woods who had walked away from a nursing home.

"We were able to locate the (person), as opposed to sending out a search and rescue team," Ganske said.

He said ISP has obtained information from drones for several crime cases that haven't been adjudicated.

"In the next couple years we hope to have great examples of how they've helped us," Ganske said.

ISP also uses drones as "game film" when training new recruits for the agency, he said.

While ISP's drone program has been in effect about a year, the agency used them at least twice in District 1 back in 2014.

They were used to gather aerial photos of a complex where a suspect barricaded himself inside a home, and at the scene of a shooting on Interstate 90 at Post Falls.

Interest from other agencies in using drones is spreading.

Idaho Department of Lands firefighters attended Tuesday's demonstration at ISP because that agency's Cataldo District is leaning toward using drones for fire suppression and situational awareness purposes.

"We'd be able to obtain information such as the rate of (fire) spread with it," said Kjell Truesdeu, IDL fire warden.

Most other area police agencies, including Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls, do not have their own drones.

The Kootenai County Sheriff's Office has sent two deputies to training so they can start a program.

"We hope to have a program up and running in six months or so," KCSO spokesman Dennis Stinebaugh said.

Drones can fly up to 400 feet — the ceiling specified by the Federal Aviation Administration — and 6 to 8 miles away. Drones that ISP uses, including the DJI Phantom 4 Quadcopter, cost $1,500.

The technology allows police to not only obtain photos or view a scene, but to live-stream to a command center.

"It helps so that we may not have to send so many officers into a crime scene," Ganske said of the safety advantage.

If a drone has flight issues, a button can be hit and it will automatically fly back home. If the battery reaches 40 percent, it will turn around and head home.

Drone technology has proven to be a cheaper alternative to helicopters in some situations, Ganske said.

Ganske said ISP uses the drones with privacy and FAA laws in mind. In some cases, using them requires obtaining a search warrant from a judge.

"We understand that people have concerns about privacy, and we want to respect that and be transparent," he said.

For law enforcement to be able to fly drones, they must obtain a pilot's license through the FAA that requires a three-month course, Ganske said.

"If we put these over citizens' heads, we want to make sure the pilot is competent," he said, adding the drones ISP uses are small and easy to use.

Ganske said ISP's drones can't fly at night. Drones that do are more expensive and a conditional-use permit must be obtained.

Ganske said he sees ISP eventually heading in that direction, though.

"The technology is moving quickly," he said.