Windham police eye aerial investigations with drones

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WINDHAM — A new initiative is taking flight in the Windham Police Department.

Chief Kevin Schofield said his department is moving forward with the purchase of an unmanned aerial vehicle – more commonly referred to as a drone – after receiving positive feedback from the Town Council during a presentation last week.

Schofield and Sgt. Jason Burke outlined plans for the drone, along with a draft public safety drone usage policy, at the June 5 council meeting.

The drone technology, equipped with a camera and mapping software, will cost more than $7,000. Funding for the equipment will come from the town’s federal forfeited assets account, according to Schofield.

The drone will provide aerial photos to aid the police department’s “traffic crash reconstruction” efforts and could also have other applications, including as a search and rescue tool, Schofield said.

The department currently uses a ladder truck from the fire department to take aerial photos of crash sites, Schofield said, and the interest in a town-owned drone was sparked in part when a resident let the town use their drone following a crash.

“That kind of caught my attention, and that started the discussion about how we really could try to use this technology to not only increase the capacity to do these investigations … but really increase the efficiency of it,” Schofield told the council last week.

The town’s proposed drone use policy for public safety and criminal investigation requires department members piloting the drone to be certified through the Federal Aviation Administration.

Burke said he and Detective Gene Gallant have already gone through the required training and certification.

“We completed that, took our tests. We are verified already, so as soon as this is purchased, we can start flying it without delay,” Burke said.

The Maine State Police has an existing policy for its use of drones. Lieutenant Bruce Scott of the Maine State Police’s Traffic Safety Unit says the agency has used drones at 31 crash scenes since first employing them last August.

“This technology is still relatively new in law enforcement” Schofield said.

Burke said the drone and mapping software could decrease time spent photographing and assessing a crash site.

“With the drone and the 3-D mapping technology, it would take us about 20 minutes to fly it, and it would take us about an hour to an hour-and-a-half to render it on the computer,” Burke explained. “So there’s a significant time savings.”

Councilor Tim Nangle suggested that could reduce town costs on overtime for staff, and Town Manager Tony Plante said it would “also cut down on disruption to the public” when crashes occur in high traffic locations.

Councilor Robert Muir asked if the software is adaptable for other uses besides traffic reconstruction. Burke said it could potentially be useful for other town departments, including Public Works.

Schofield later said there will be “no weaponry, facial recognition, or anything like that” as part of the department’s drone technology, but added that there was a possibility down the road for infrared capabilities to help in search situations.

Schofield said there may be other “practical applications” for the drone that his department hasn’t anticipated yet.

The Council did not take a formal vote on the drone proposal, but several members indicated their verbal support. Plante said no further council action is needed.

Schofield expects the drone to be procured and operational around July 1.

Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or mjunker@keepmecurrent.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.

Windham Police Sgt. Jason Burke is one of two officers FAA-certified to pilot a drone. The town is in the process of purchasing a drone to help with traffic accident reconstruction.

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