The department purchased five drones for use in crime scene analysis, disaster response, search and rescue, or active incidents, said spokesperson Henry Wofford. Drones can help officers overcome difficult terrain such as flooded roads or forested areas.
Five officers have been certified as pilots so far, but the department intends to certify more pilots and purchase more drones by the end of the year, he said. The current drones cost about $2,800 each for a total of $14,000.
“We want to make sure we’re using the best technology to help solve crimes, protect lives and protect property,” Wofford said.
The so-called small unmanned aerial systems can go as fast as 50 miles per hour and can fly up to five miles from the pilot, though the pilot is required to see the drone in order to operate it, he said.
The Sheriff’s Office rollout of the drone program was not without its critics after the department announced it on social media last week. Some expressed concerns about privacy.
Wofford said the Sheriff’s Office is not allowed to fly drones in peoples’ yards at whim and would have to obtain a warrant. He noted that law enforcement agencies are required to abide by the Federal Aviation Administration and Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures — and agencies sometimes use helicopters for the same purposes.
“This is something that we can get up in the air much faster and does not cost nearly as much,” Wofford said.
The drones, which have been operable for two months, got their first play in a significant local incident last week, when Napa police say a man broke into an apartment, armed with a knife and sword. The man came out onto a second-story balcony at one point.
The drone allowed officers to peer into the apartment’s second floor, through a glass sliding door, said Lt. Chase Haag of the Napa Police Department. It was helpful in providing real-time updates and determining whether the man was armed, he said.
“Being able to have that equipment … it keeps from one of us having to go up there,” Haag said.
The Napa Police Department is not formally exploring adding drones to its repertoire, but Haag said he has heard success stories of other departments who use the technology.
“I think we have an obligation to at least look at it,” he said.
Sheriff’s Offices in Alameda, Contra Costa, Los Angeles and San Diego Counties have also rolled out drones in their departments.
Watch the new drones in action below: