Expanding their radar

2019-08-02 | Lewiston Morning Tribune

Aug. 02-- Aug. 2--Clarkston Detective Colby Martin became a drone fan after watching a fellow law enforcement officer rappel down a precipitous hillside along the Old Spiral Highway to search for possible victims in a car crash.

Martin, who was working for the Nez Perce County Sheriff's Office at the time, said his former co-worker tied a rope to the bumper of a patrol vehicle and had to "shimmy down an incredibly steep embankment" dressed in full uniform and gear.

"I remember thinking there's got to be a better way to do this," Martin said. "It had the potential to not end well."

Fortunately, there were no victims in the wreck, and the deputy made it back up the hill in one piece. But the incident left a lasting impression on Martin, who now works for the Clarkston Police Department.

"That's when I started looking into how drones can be used in law enforcement," Martin said. "Basically, they are like a mini-helicopter, without the expense. It's a super helpful tool."

After researching how drones are being used at agencies in Pullman and Whitman County, Clarkston officials decided to give it a try a few months ago and sent Martin to training at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission in Burien. He now has FFA certification and is the "unmanned aerial system coordinator" for the department.

Police Chief Joel Hastings said Martin was a good choice for the position because he has experience with drones and is part of the SWAT team and Quad Cities Drug Task Force.

"He worked with Pullman a lot on this," Hastings said. "They were a big help to us."

Adding a drone to the department's tool chest increases safety and efficiency, Hastings said. It can be used for missing person cases, search and rescue, tactical situations, fires and to search for suspects.

The chief said he became convinced a drone could be beneficial to his department when a call came in about a missing child. Every officer was on the ground, driving through neighborhoods, but a bird's-eye view of the area would've been more helpful, he said.

To date, the Clarkston drone has been used for a narcotics investigation and an agency assist when police in another jurisdiction were looking for a weapon in a remote area, Martin said.

Drones have grown in popularity in recent years, and many industries are using them to get aerial shots of hard-to-reach areas, real estate listings and construction projects.

"Technically, we all have to follow the same rules," Martin said. "I have to call the airport every time I fly it."

When the drone is in the air, Martin views a live feed of the footage on his cellphone. He can also record and take still photos with the device, which cost about $1,300.

"It does the trick for our purposes," Martin said. "We only use it for specific investigations. I will not be looking into anyone's backyard, unless I have a specific, legal reason to do so."

The public can take a closer peek at the newest addition to the police force at 6 p.m. Tuesday at National Night Out at Beachview Park. Martin will be on hand to demonstrate how the drone works and answer any questions at the annual gathering.

"By and large, the community has been very responsive to it so far," Martin said. "It's a really cool tool and I'm glad we have it."