EL CENTRO — The El Centro Police Department presented a community forum Wednesday, April 14, to introduce the use of unmanned aerial system (UAS) as an additional future law enforcement service in the City.
The City Council members, law enforcement officers, officials, and community members participated in the public outreach forum via Zoom. Other concerned residents participated through social media.
Officer Robert Sawyer presented the proposal and an overview of the unmanned aerial system which is popularly known as a drone. UAS is also called Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). A drone is an unmanned aircraft robot, equipped with a surveillance camera, that is remotely controlled by a pilot on the ground using an electronic console. Drones are used in military, commercial, and civilian applications.
The drones will be used in law enforcement, fire emergencies, and by rescue responders to natural disasters, said Sergeant Damian Valdez.
“UAS will enhance police operations,” said Valdez, whose team had explored and researched drone use and application for the past two years. He has consulted with the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office, Chula Vista and San Diego police departments, and civil liberties organizations as well. In October 2020, the El Centro City Council members supported and endorsed the UAS pilot program for law enforcement, firefighters, and public works personnel.
Valdez talked about the benefits, objections, implementation, operation policies, cost, and further steps to finalize the project. At the end of the presentation, inquiries from community members were read and responded to by Sawyer.
A major concern from the community forum was surveillance and intrusion into the personal privacy of individuals.
“There is no intentional observation of locations,” said Valdez, referring to backyards, homes, and private buildings. He said the UAS will be deployed only in response to calls or for active incidents.
“Deployment of drones is mission specific and launched with the approval of the commander,” said Valdez. Among its applications are crime scene investigations, suspect searches in hard to search areas, rescue operations, intelligence gathering, and locating illegal camping. “It will not be equipped with weapons.”
Currently, there is no readily available air support and the El Centro Police Department had to rely on the availability of helicopter support from the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office and the Customs and Border Protection agencies.
According to Valdez, the UAS is much cheaper than a helicopter in terms of equipment, maintenance, and human resources.
The drone can easily be deployed in a short time period from a patrol car unit and immediately keep track of a suspect or an emergency situation. It can explore inaccessible areas without exposing law enforcement officers or firefighters to any potential threats of violence or natural dangers such as volatile gases and burning sites.
The cost for the UAS comes from a grant and will include consulting fees, required permits, equipment, software, storage, and pilot training.
According to Valdez, the next step is to reach out and provide community education to allay the fears of residents. The next forum is at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 24, and will again be hosted by the El Centro Police Department.
“The UAS will improve the safety of police and fire personnel and it makes our job easier,” said Valdez.