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Walla Walla police add three drones to fleet

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WALLA WALLA — Residents could notice more buzzing in the air, particularly near crime scenes, as three drones are among the Walla Walla Police Department’s tools.

Three officers received their Federal Aviation Administration licenses to fly the unmanned aerial systems, which were bought recently, according to Walla Walla Police Sgt. Eric Knudson. He added officials have discussed having the machines for about a year, as they’ve become increasingly useful.

“In 2017, it was estimated that about 347 police departments, sheriffs’ offices, and EMS and fire departments in 43 states were flying drones,” according to an April 2019 report on the USDOJ’s Community Oriented Policing Services “Community Policing Dispatch” website. “And it is expected that this number will grow dramatically.”

Benton and Franklin counties already have drones, Walla Walla Detective Chris Ruchert said, and have used them for crime scenes, such as officer-involved shootings.

“I think it’ll be a really valuable tool for us to have,” she said.

Officer Logan Morris, Officer Eric Eastman and Ruchert attended a preparatory course in March and successfully tested in September.

Ruchert said they weren’t quite ready to use them routinely for crime scenes, but likely would use Morris on the drones in an emergency, as he has had practice with his personal machine. She said more practice would ensure drones wouldn’t crash or put people in danger.

“It’s a new program for us,” she said. “We’re still getting confident and proficient. … It’ll be exciting when we’re fully functional. There’s always a learning curve during training.”

Ruchert said she’s flown the machines a few times and it was fun. However, she knew the additions weren’t meant for play and wished the department had them sooner, such as during a recent case involving a barricaded person, a situation that required SWAT assistance.

“It would have been helpful to have it in the back of the house without the suspect knowing what we were doing,” she said, adding the machines could get a perspective of the scene without putting officers in potential harm’s way.

“Personally, I’d rather lose a $3,000 drone than an officer,” she said.

Having the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual, one of the WWPD’s drones, also would’ve helped during a recent silver alert involving a missing woman, Knudson said. Several officers searched on foot in the dense woods near Fort Walla Walla, he said, but the drone’s thermal imaging could’ve been used.

The other two drones bought by the WWPD were the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Zoom and the DJI Spark, for training.

The $8,502 worth of drones and equipment will be used to protect “lives and property when other means and resources are not available or are less effective,” according to a WWPD social media post. Police won’t use the UAS for “random surveillance activities, and our operators will follow the guidelines established by the FAA for operation.”

“We’re not going to send a drone up and spy in people’s yards,” Ruchert added.

Scenarios likely involving drones include search and rescue, providing visuals, documenting crime scenes, managing disasters, and in deploying officers in barricaded and/or hostage situations. They also may help police understand the scope of an incident. Fatal collisions could be another opportunity for drones to document from overhead, Knudson said.

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