More eyes in the sky for Merced police

March 8, 2018

Merced police now have one more tool to keep themselves and the public safe during crucial situations — drones.

The Merced Police Department has a 12-member team that will increasingly be using a "fleet" of five "small unmanned aerial systems" — drones — this year as the officers become certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Sgt. Dan Dabney heads up the department's drone unit. Last year he was approached by then-chief Norm Andrade to put together a program when drone usage by officers wasn't very common.

The 47-year-old sergeant has been interested in remote control aircraft since he was a youngster. He used to joke with fellow officers that one day they would be using drones in their work — now that day has come.

"The key thing is keeping people safe," Dabney says. "We're their eyes, whether it's officers, firefighters or the general public. We're real excited to have it here."

Sometimes crime suspects will run from officers, often bounding over fences and hiding in residents' backyards. A drone can start the search for these suspects and cover more territory much faster than officers on foot can, Dabney explains.

Drones also can be used in search and rescue emergencies including those involving missing small children and the elderly. They also will be available for the department's SWAT and bomb squad units and in serving search warrants.

"It's catching on really fast for public safety in general. The technology is fantastic. It's anytime we need eyes in the sky. The drones are equipped with GPS and are able to take off and land in the same location. We can only record video in the event of an incident. It's against the law to peep into windows and we have to follow search and seizure regulations," Dabney says.

The average cost of the drones is $2,500; two of them were purchased by private donors and another was seized as evidence.

Officer Ben Dalia, along with Dabney and another officer, are the only ones to use the drones, but it is expected all 12 officers will have their certification by the end of the year.

Dalia, the school resource officer at East Campus High, is still going through 20 hours of department training but likes the fact he's considered a pilot who never leaves the ground.

"I am getting paid to have lots of fun," Dalia says. "There's a whole lot of redundancy built in to make sure we're well-trained. They're super with a lot of safety built into these things. The biggest danger is the unknown and we can reach these areas." He also reported minor involvement with radio control aircraft when he was growing up.

Merced police have used the drones in three limited deployment instances so far this year. They will be used more frequently as the need arises.

Dabney stressed the FAA plays a critical role in officers using drones. The FAA provides a thick manual which details flight conditions, details of the aircraft, clouds and weather patterns, along with when and where they can and cannot fly. Officers are preparing for online testing of their skills and will spend three to six months in flight training at the former Castle AFB.

"2018 is our goal to have everybody certified. There's a lot of studying to do. We're called 'pilots' and there's not much different than manned aircraft," Dabney says. The drones are registered with the FAA and it's a federal crime to shoot one down.

About a foot square and crab-like in appearance, the drones are packed full of technology and "exist" quietly in hardened cases in the sergeant's office. But when they're needed, they will spring to life quickly, flying at up to 46 mph, 400 feet in altitude and into places that humans can't reach.

Dabney also says the department is getting night vision technology where thermal images are readily apparent.

"When someone's hiding, they will light up like a candle," he quips.

Doane Yawger of Merced is a semi-retired newspaper reporter and editor.

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