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Drones a possibility for local law enforcement

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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - Could the use of drones by law enforcement help in the capture of suspects or in the case of missing persons?    

The Riverside County Sheriff's Department is actively looking for grants to buy unmanned aircrafts or drones for search and rescues. Palm Springs police said its bird's-eye view could help save lives.

"There has to be a way to help people if they need help," said Palm Springs hiker Ryan Tharp.

Palm Springs mounted search-and-rescue has looked into the technology, especially for areas where helicopters can't go.

"Those areas where those folks are stuck are generally very remote; using an unmanned aircraft system would show us where the person is to kind of guide our reaction to the situation," said Palm Springs Police Lt. Mike Kovaleff. 

Kovaleff said while crews work to get to a person, a drone could prove to be a valuable resource.

"We could see where the person is, what type of injuries what kind of condition they are in, ultimately some of the unmanned aircraft have payload capabilities; we could look at bringing water to a person, bringing a cellphone to a person," said Kovaleff.

Assistant Sheriff Lee Wagner said in a statement to News Channel 3 and CBS Local 2 the department would like to explore the technology and how it might help not only cut costs but save lives. (read his full statement below) 

So why isn't everyone using the technology?

"There is a lot of legal issues, privacy issues," said Kovaleff.

"I think it's a good idea especially if someone needs help, but I think there should be a way to regulate the privacy issue where they go where they fly, neighborhoods verses non-neighborhoods," said Tharp.

Last week the Department of Justice released guidelines allowing law enforcement to use unmanned aircraft for authorized investigations and activity only. It strictly prohibits surveillance. Several state lawmakers are also looking to clarify the issue even further.

Even with the Department of Justice announcement, Kovaleff said it will be a while before drones come to Palm Springs.  "A lot more research will be needed to evaluated to propose it."

Another potential issue for the Palm Springs Police Department is the airport. The FAA has strict rules about what can and can't be flown in airspace where planes are taking off and landing.

Drones are actively being used in other parts of the country for search and rescue, but only one sheriff's department in California has purchased them. Alameda County is still waiting on FAA permission to fly the unmanned aircraft.

Statement from Riverside County Sheriff's Department:

"The Sheriff's Department responded to over 172 search and rescue requests within our county in 2014.  Each of these incidents consume a great deal of time and resources.  The costs of these missions continue to increase year after year.  Additionally, time is of the essence when it comes to search and rescue missions.  The quicker we can deploy equipment and resources in an attempt to locate missing, lost or injured persons, the more likely we are able to save lives and/or minimize trauma suffered by these individuals.  With that in mind, the Sheriff's Department is beginning to evaluate the possibility of the limited usage of an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) to augment Search and Rescue operations and leverage scarce resources in emergencies, in an effort to reduce loss of life and related costs.

The Department has looked at the aspect of the integration of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) into the public safety venue in other areas of the country and would like to explore the validity of this new technology into Riverside County.

The usage of UAV's has been brought to the public's attention during previous fires in California, flooding in Colorado as well as the search for a missing fireman in Ventura County.  UAV's were utilized in these events to assist in assessments, and deployment of rescue personnel and equipment to the affected areas.

We will be looking to fund any Unmanned Aerial Vehicles  to use in Search and Rescue missions through grants."

-Assistant Sheriff Lee Wagner

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