On the night of Jan. 14, Turlock Police officers were sent out to Osborn School after a man was seen walking into a construction zone with a duffle bag. The suspect, Jonathan Rock, 25, tried getting into a locked tool box but had to abandon his plans as officers arrived at the site. Rock ran from the approaching officers, ignoring all orders to stop. He ran into the neighboring cemetery with an improvised plan to hide from the officers. Unbeknownst to Rock, the Falcon was already flying overhead and had eyes on him. Within a short time, officers had closed the perimeter around him and taken him into custody.
The Falcon is the nickname endearingly given to the three unmanned aerial systems, more commonly known as drones. It is the latest tool the Turlock Police Department has deployed to help fight crime and keep officers safe.
“Many law enforcement agencies are suffering from challenges of recruiting and maintaining staffing levels appropriate for the size of a growing city,” said Turlock Police Chief Jason Hedden. “It’s critical that we utilize technology and other assets to provide better public safety measures and a faster, more efficient way to end criminal activity. Most California cities are experiencing an uptick in crime and we do everything we can to stay ahead of it versus running from behind. This is a commitment I will continue to uphold as police chief.
“Drones also allow us to keep our officers safer, because we have better visibility into the activity that’s happening, and allows us to enter into situations with a better level of safety for our officers,” Hedden said.
The police department currently has six members who have completed the Federal Aviation Agency’s training and become certified unmanned aerial system pilots, said the team leader Sgt. Joseph Dusel. They have three drones in operations with plans for expanding the team with more pilots and drones.
“We received an overwhelmingly great response from within the police department when it was first learned that we would be establishing a UAS team,” Dusel said. “Drones, like much technology, are new and exciting so individuals are eager to see how they can assist us in our daily duties. Most people see how they increase safety for officers and the public.”
Officer Richard Fortado had gained some flying experience from his own personal drone and when he learned the department would be putting together a team, he immediately knew he wanted to be a part of it.
“I saw the benefits of it for what we do and wanted to be a part of it,” Fortado said.
Once a team member is added to the UAS unit, they have to take and pass the FAA test to become a certified UAS pilot. The team also participates in regular trainings, allowing the team members to work together in various scenarios, gain flight experience, and enhance their skill sets as UAS pilot.
Flying overhead, the drones are relatively silent. The video camera can give the officers a complete overview of a scene and all three have the capability to have a spotlight or public address speaker attached if the situation warrants.
The use of drone by law enforcement has been steadily growing since 2016, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice. Additionally, the ways the departments are using the drones is expanding to include search and rescue missions, disaster response, crowd monitoring, traffic collision reconstruction, crime scene reconstruction, providing tactical information before an operation, surveillance and investigating armed and dangerous suspects.
Deciding when to deploy one of the drones also is evolving.
“It varies from call to call,” Dusel said. “We’ve had a couple incidents where they were used to assist in apprehending a suspect. You have to weigh and balance each situation.”