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Laguna Beach builds its drone police force, with an eye on the future of law enforcement

Jeremy Frimond, right, teaches Capt. Kai Bond about the city’s Inspire 2 small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) at Main Beach in Laguna Beach, CA, on Friday, Sep 21, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Capt. Zach Fillers tests police dog Ranger’s reaction to a small quadcopter in Laguna Beach, CA, on Friday, Sep 21, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
SoundThe gallery will resume insecondsSgt. George Ramos attaches propellers to a Matrice 210 small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) near the police department in Laguna Beach, CA, on Friday, Sep 21, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Jeremy Frimond demonstrates how the lifeguards can use a small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) to do a grid search for a swimmer near Main Beach in Laguna Beach, CA, on Friday, Sep 21, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Jeremy Frimond, right, teaches Capt. Kai Bond about the city’s Inspire 2 small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) at Main Beach in Laguna Beach, CA, on Friday, Sep 21, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Sgt. George Ramos operates a Matrice 210 small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) near the police department in Laguna Beach, CA, on Friday, Sep 21, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Jeremy Frimond flies the city’s Inspire 2 small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) at Main Beach in Laguna Beach, CA, on Friday, Sep 21, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Sgt. George Ramos sets up a Matrice 210 small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) near the police department in Laguna Beach, CA, on Friday, Sep 21, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Sgt. George Ramos operates a Matrice 210 small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) near the police department in Laguna Beach, CA, on Friday, Sep 21, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Jeremy Frimond, right, teaches Capt. Kai Bond about the city’s Inspire 2 small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) at Main Beach in Laguna Beach, CA, on Friday, Sep 21, 2018. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
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LAGUNA BEACH — When a family disturbance turned into a hostage situation and a SWAT standoff, shutting down four blocks in the north part of town, Laguna Beach police Cpl. Thom Spratt brought in the department’s Air I, a small unmanned aircraft.
Spratt used this drone to secure the area’s perimeter, while other police officers and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s SWAT team took posts around the home.
The drone took the place of at least two officers who typically would have conducted surveillance in nearby backyards. It gave officers an aerial perspective, with heat sensors that could pick up movements inside and outside the home. It maintained surveillance until OCSD’s Duke helicopter arrived on scene.
The July incident that ended when the suspect surrendered is one of multiple events this year in which the Laguna Beach Police Department has employed its new unmanned aircraft system. The drones supplement officers when public safety is at risk.
“It’s incredibly useful,” said Sgt. George Ramos, a 32-year veteran of the department who leads the three-drone team. “It saves Laguna a lot of money in the cost of helicopters and provides quick response in search and rescues and surveillance on wanted suspects.”
Laguna Beach’s drone program, the first of its kind among police agencies in Orange County, represents the future, law enforcement officials say, functioning similarly to a helicopter without the expense and wait time.
Drones increasingly are being deployed by state and local law enforcement operations nationwide. A recent study by New York’s Bard College found that more than 900 agencies are using drones. The agencies report that drones improve officer safety and increase law enforcement productivity resulting in greater public safety. In some cases, drones also alleviate dependency on helicopter services from partner agencies.
Laguna Beach police Chief Laura Farinella recently introduced the city’s $35,000 program and its three pilots to the City Council and explained its genesis.
Farinella told the council that after seeing how recreational use of drones had increased around the city, she realized the potential for drones in law enforcement. After getting support from City Manager John Pietig, the city’s police department started the program in January.
In May 2017, the city banned public drone use over city parks, near beaches and over city buildings.
So far this year, LBPD has deployed drones to look for unlawful fires in Laguna Canyon; search for lost hikers; scan for sleeping on the beach and on the hillsides; during a neighbor dispute in which one person was armed with a knife; during panga landings at Crystal Cove State Beach; for aerial documentation of a fatal collision; to spot illegal camping on the beach; and to do surveillance when issuing a search warrant.
While drones can be the first eyes up during a disaster, they can also be deployed as a preventive measure. The department’s pilots fly the drones through the canyon at times of high fire danger, across the wilderness open space to look for illegal fires and camping, and along the beaches to scan for curfew violations.
Laguna’s program has drawn interest from other area agencies, including the Irvine, Orange and Anaheim police departments and OCSD. The Irvine City Council on Tuesday, Sept. 25, approved a plan to begin a drone program in its police department.
Police agencies in Riverside and San Diego counties also have contacted LBPD to learn more about the benefits of a drone program.
Future of law enforcement
Ramos, who is a licensed pilot and flew planes for special task forces including the county’s Regional Narcotic Suppression Program, first looked into drones as a resource for the department’s social media platform. But after attending the Commercial UAV Expo in San Jose, he recognized there was a greater potential for their use in law enforcement.
“I came back excited, realizing this is the future for law enforcement,” Ramos said. “There will be more uses over the next months and years we haven’t even thought of.”
Farinella was supportive, seeing the new technology as a “force multiplier” that provides her officers with greater awareness from an aerial perspective. She sent Ramos and Spratt to become licensed as drone pilots in November 2017.
After being licensed, Ramos bought the department’s first drone — a Phantom 4 — for $1,400. He and Spratt trained to fly during the day, at night and as tactical pilots indoors.
The indoor flying skills have come in handy. When officers respond to a burglar alarm call the drone can go inside the structure first, providing greater safety for the officer, Ramos said.
After getting their licenses, Ramos and Spratt trained with pilots from Homeland Security, Oxnard Police Department and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. They also got help setting up their program from the Torrance Police Department, one of the area’s first agencies to initiate an unmanned aircraft program.
A department policy that includes a review of state and federal privacy issues was developed. It states that drones can be used in the “mission of protecting lives and property when other means or resources are not available or are less effective.”
Drones for lifeguards
Though the drones are new to Laguna Beach police, they are not new to Laguna Beach lifeguards.
Lifeguard Chief Kevin Snow said this is the third year a drone has been used to keep watch over the city’s 5.5 miles of coastline and 16.5 miles of ocean. The department also has a drone just for training and plans to acquire a second service drone, this one capable of landing on the water and peering beneath it.
In addition to scanning for marine predators, the drone is used to look for missing swimmers, watch the city’s marine protected areas and monitor long-distance swimming during the department’s Junior Lifeguard Program.
Like other lifeguard agencies in Orange County, Laguna Beach lifeguards began using drones as great white shark sightings increased, said Jeremy Frimond, who worked as the city’s marine protection officer at the time and now is a senior analyst in the city manager’s office.
“In a rescue, every second counts,” Frimond said. “I can go up within minutes and get a bird’s-eye view of the water. We can use that critical time with a high degree of confidence.”
Over the summer, Laguna Beach lifeguards launched drones more than a dozen times in response to shark sightings.
Practicing for the future
On Friday, Sept. 21, Ramos and Officer Mike Short practiced flying their drones behind the police department. Short, who joined the drone team in March, said he appreciates the unique perspective that drones provide.
Recently, he responded to an incident in which a woman was reportedly threatening another person with a gun and a knife in a shopping center. Spratt, who was also on the call, engaged his drone and provided Short with the woman’s specific location.
“I was able to use that to my advantage and the woman was apprehended 30 minutes later,”  Short said.
Ramos is excited for the future. In the next few months, he said, the department may add as many as six new officers to the drone team.
“The plan is eventually all of us will work together,” Ramos said. “As other agencies develop their programs, like the helicopters now, it will become a mutual aid.”
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Source: OC Register

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