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Medford police launch Drone Response Team

A member of Medford police’s new Drone Response Team launches a drone from headquarters. State law and policies in the department handbook restrict how and when drones are used. [MPD photo]
New team includes 3 officers, fleet of 4 drones

A new team of certified drone operators will give Medford police eyes in the sky, helping them with everything from crime scene reconstruction to tracking suspects on the run.

Medford’s new Drone Response Team is composed of three officers who have obtained the required Federal Aviation Administration training and certification necessary to operate a fleet of four drones — three of them unique models of varying sizes and capabilities, according to patrol Lt. Rebecca Pietila at Medford police.

“Some of them are specific for indoor flight, and others are equipped for outdoor flight,” Pietila said.

One patrol vehicle will be dedicated to the drone team, according to Pietila. Currently there’s not much difference between it and any other patrol cruiser, but Pietila said the vehicle will be outfitted with extra screens and other drone tools down the line as the budget allows.

The unmanned drones were purchased with $30,000 in federal forfeiture funds approved by Medford City Council in a supplemental budget resolution March 17, according to council documents.

The drones and related equipment are “to assist officers with in-progress calls for service,” according to the line item in the agenda packet.

Pietila said the drones will be used for purposes that include documenting crash scenes and crime scenes and to aid in searches for missing people.

Some of the drones give officers footage in real time while others are capable of recording and feeding it straight into the same Axon system as officers’ bodycam video.

Oregon law prevents the police department from deploying the drones without a reason, and similar policies are in the Medford police policy handbook, according to Pietila.

“Really, that’s not the purpose or the mission of this program,” Pietila said.

Oregon Revised Statute 837 authorizes the use of unmanned aircraft systems only in strict circumstances, such as a warrant authorizing the drone for a specific period of time, when an individual has given the agency written permission to deploy the drone on their property or when the agency has “probable cause to believe that a person has committed a crime, is committing a crime or about to commit a crime.”

Footage obtained in training operations is not admissible in court, and it may not be used to establish probable cause of crimes committed.

During crime scene investigation and crash reconstruction, drones are allowed for up to five days after an incident — and only for reconstructing the specific crime scene or accident scene.

Medford police is not the only law enforcement agency in the region utilizing drone technology.

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office has seven drone operators with FAA Part 107 drone pilot certification, according to JCSO spokesman Aaron Lewis.

The sheriff’s office uses them for search-and-rescue operations and to provide another angle of view when serving high-risk warrants.

Oregon State Police uses what they describe as “small unmanned aircraft systems” primarily for crash reconstruction, according to an email from OSP Communications Director Mindy McCartt.

“Some complex crashes present like a 1,000-piece puzzle, taking more time and effort to provide solid answers to victims and their families — and for the legal system to appropriately hold violators accountable for their actions,” McCartt stated.

In OSP fatal crash investigations, drones frequently work with robotic survey equipment, Global Navigation Satellite System rovers and tablets equipped with light detection and ranging, as well as 3D scanners.

“The strategy and application of this technology often results in reducing the impact on traffic flow during the investigation while, at the same time, achieving forensically sound scene documentation at survey-grade accuracy that can be fully integrated,” McCartt stated.

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.