LACONIA — The police department will soon have a couple of eyes in the sky to help officers and the public.
Police Chief Matt Canfield said he intends to buy two unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, with cameras and heat-seeking capability.
Several other law enforcement agencies in New Hampshire fly drones, including State Police and departments in Manchester and Portsmouth.
The exact model hasn’t been picked, but one was demonstrated for the department on Tuesday. It is about 3-feet long.
“They have certainly become a really big tool in law enforcement for a number of different missions,” Canfield said. “No. 1 is to increase officer safety by bringing the eye-in-the-sky ability to see without putting officers in a danger zone or in jeopardy.”
This can be especially important in SWAT team responses where the more visual information police can gather, the better.
The aerial vehicles can also be used when someone is lost.
“They can aid in search and rescue, whether it be an elderly person with Alzheimer’s or a child with autism who is drawn to a body of water or a snowmobile that has gone through the ice.
“If a child goes missing, time is critical, and this would allow us to check a large area,” Canfield said.
Drones would also be useful in checking crowds for problems at large-scale events, such as Pumpkinfest or Motorcycle Week.
Canfield said Sgt. Robert Sedgley has spent a year researching and obtaining owner certification to fly an unmanned aerial vehicles.
During the Recycled Percussion concert in Lakeport in September, he flew a drone above the crowd.
“We were in the research phase back then,” Canfield said. “We wanted to be able to fly that and check rooftops.”
During large gatherings, police like to be sure high areas looking down on crowds are secure.
“There were 8,000 people in a bowl,” he said. “By flying that, we were able to get an overall aerial view from a command post perspective.”
Kris Kelley, the deputy police chief in Gilford, said his department does not use drones but has been discussing their benefits.
“It’s something we’ve looked at,” he said. "They could be useful when looking for a suspect.”
He said drones are also particularly helpful in investigating major traffic accidents.
“They have an integrated software system that lets you diagram a scene in a more timely and accurate way and allows you to get the roadway open faster,” Kelley said.
Belmont Fire Chief Michael Newhall said his department purchased an unmanned aerial vehicle two years ago.
“We have used it for investigations,” he said. “It gives us another view, from above. We can see a larger area and call more detail from a different angle.”
He said it is also used when someone reports smoke in a remote area and it’s not immediately apparent what is on fire.
Canfield said the Laconia Police Department’s UAVs will be available to the Belknap County accident reconstruction team.
He said he had basic concerns when Sedgley came to him with the idea of buying unmanned aerial vehicles, but those concerns were allayed as he learned more about the devices.
The operator of the drone must be in visual contact with the device at all times. Strict protocols ensure public privacy and govern where they can fly and what can be looked at. Constitutional search and seizure rules apply.
“It’s just like if you had a helicopter,” Canfield said. “You wouldn’t fly low over a house, looking in the windows. It’s the same thing with UAVs.”
The vehicles must be kept to a certain elevation and must remain out of airport flight zones.
Two UAVs are being purchased with $70,000 that was set aside in a capital improvement program for the purchase of training equipment, which can be acquired at a later date.
Once the drones are purchased, officers will undergo a training program for their use. They are to be flying by this summer.
There have been privacy concerns as public safety agencies expand their use of surveillance drones.
The ACLU put out a statement including several suggested safeguards:
• Usage Limits: A drone should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act.
• Data Retention: Images should be retained only when there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.
• Policy: Usage policy on drones should be decided by the public’s representatives, not by police departments, and the policies should be clear, written, and open to the public.
• Abuse Prevention and Accountability: Use of domestic drones should be subject to open audits and proper oversight to prevent misuse.