Redding PD’s UAV’s prove critical during major incidents

REDDING — Like many other law enforcement agencies its size, Redding Police Department does not have its own aviation unit or helicopters. Instead, the department relies heavily on assistance from CHP’s Northern Division Aerial Operations, which provides aerial support for 13 counties throughout northern California. Because of the vast area CHP’s Air Ops covers, much needed help from above is not always readily available.

Now, since the inception of their Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Program last year, when RPD officers find themselves in need of aerial support but none is available, they turn to their own UAVs – small aerial vehicles commonly referred to as drones – to give their officers the hi-tech edge and advantage to do their jobs more effectively and provide for a safer community.

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“Redding Police Department now uses several UAVs, which are specifically used to provide an enhanced aerial perspective during in-progress critical incidents,” Redding Police Sgt. Chris Smyrnos recently told SCNS.

Smyrnos explained that unlike traditional air support – where aviation personnel viewing a scene from above relay vitally important information to officers and incident commanders on the ground – one huge benefit in using UAVs is that they instead provide that first-hand, real-time, information to personnel on the ground via the device’s high-definition, live video feed.

 “Being able to see the live video is critical for incident commanders on the ground, for enhancing tactics and ensuring officer safety,” Smyrnos explained.

“With specialized aircraft, operators are able to quickly deploy for an aerial overview of incidents, location of suspects, up-to-the-minute intelligence, crime scene evidence identification, and crime scene photography,” Smyrnos explained. “Having that aerial perspective can make a big difference as far as comprehending or understanding complicated collision or crime scenes.” 

“Being able to see the live video is critical for incident commanders on the ground, for enhancing tactics and ensuring officer safety,” according to RPD.

RPD’s UAV Program began in mid-2018, thanks in large part due to a $25,000 donation from Bethel Church in 2017. The church’s considerable donation, which helped cover the substantial startup costs associated with purchasing the UAVs and training officers in their proper use, was later approved by Redding’s City Council. Ongoing funds for the program, which costs about $2,000 a year to operate and maintain, comes from of the City’s general fund.

While describing the many benefits to the department’s UAV program Smyrnos was quick to point out that the agency prefers to stay away from the commonly used term “drones” when describing the department’s small, quad-copter style devices.

“We call our units UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and intentionally do not call them drones. The term drone carries with it the connotation of weaponized military-grade hardware, which we do not use,” the Sgt. explained, saying all of RPD’s devices are “off-the-shelf products,” the kind available to any hobbyist.

RPD’s UAV program, which maintains a current Certificate of Authorization to utilize law enforcement aircraft in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration regulations, is comprised of two supervisors and six officers – all of whom are trained in the use of each UAV platform the department uses, according to Smyrnos.

“The deployment of our UAVs is governed by strict controls as outlined in our department policy,” the Sgt. explained. “For example, supervisor approval is required before a UAV can be used for an in-field deployment, and all missions are required to be thoroughly documented.”

Once the UAVs were purchased and a team of RPD’s officers were properly trained in their use, the department quite literally launched their new program into service. Right away, the UAVs proved invaluable, not only in helping officers investigating active and in-progress crimes, but for other critical incidents and community disasters as well.

“For example, after the Carr Fire swept through Redding in the summer of 2018, RPD assisted the Menlo Park Fire Department, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, and the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office with high-resolution mapping of the devastated areas using UAVs,” Smyrnos told SCNS. “This data was made available to the public via the City of Redding’s website and was invaluable in documenting the damage that catastrophe caused.”

Another example of the UAV’s versatility and usefulness was when one was called into action both before and after a recent city-wide cleanup followed by a “Quality of Life” enforcement operation. That footage, filmed on Feb. 12 and Feb.19 helped show area residents the stark difference and results of the large-scale operation. (That footage can be viewed below.)

“With specialized aircraft, operators are able to quickly deploy for an aerial overview of incidents, location of suspects, up-to-the-minute intelligence, crime scene evidence identification, and crime scene photography,” RPD Sgt. Chris Smyrnos recently told SCNS.

When not being used for community disasters, the department’s UAVs have proven most effective in tracking down and locating suspected criminals during active incidents and investigations. The department’s most recent successful use of their UAVs happened early last Sunday morning, when an eagle-eyed officer spotted suspicious activity and heard unusual banging noises coming from the Sonsray Machinery yard, in the area of Ellis and Polk streets. 

Knowing the business was closed, the officer began investigating and soon spotted a man in the cab of a running pickup truck inside the business’s fenced yard. When the alleged suspect noticed responding officers arriving in the area, he immediately fled through the fenced property, and disappeared from officer’s view after climbing onto the roof of a nearby business. 

Officers at the scene quickly established a perimeter around the area and requested assistance from CHP’s Aviation Unit, but their helicopter was in another county at the time and unavailable. Without CHP’s help available, a supervisor called in one of the department’s UAV operators, who had soon launched one of the department’s small quad-copter UAVs over the area where the suspect had been seen last.

Using high-definition cameras mounted to their UAV, officers employed their “eye in the sky” to determine the suspect was hiding inside another fenced yard to the south of the original business.

With assistance from a department K9, officers located the man hiding inside a vehicle in that yard, where he was apprehended after he “violently resisted arrest,” officials previously explained.

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During their subsequent investigation, officers determined the alleged suspect illegally entered three separate business yards and was in the process of trying to steal the pickup he was originally spotted inside.

Without the quick deployment and successful use of the UAV, the alleged thief could possibly have eluded officers and escaped apprehension. It is incidents such as this Smyrnos explained, where one of the department’s UAVs were able to not only help track down and locate a criminal, but did so while helping to keep officers, and the entire city of Redding, a little bit safer.

For more information about Redding PD’s cutting-edge use of UAV’s visit the department’s website or contact Redding PD Sgt. Chris Smyrnos at (530) 225-4200.

One of Redding PD’s UAV’s was called into action both before and after a recent city-wide cleanup followed by a “Quality of Life” enforcement operation. That footage, filmed on Feb. 12 and Feb.19 helped show area residents the stark difference and results of the large-scale operation.

Contact the writer: trevor.rcns@gmail.com

Trevor Montgomery, 47, moved last year to the Intermountain area of Shasta County from Riverside County and runs Riverside County News Source and Shasta County News Source. Additionally, he writes for several other news organizations; including Riverside County based newspapers, Valley News, The Valley Chronicle, and Anza Valley Outlook; as well as Bonsall/Fallbrook Village News in San Diego County and Mountain Echo in Shasta County.

Trevor spent 10 years in the U.S. Army as an Orthopedic Specialist before joining the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in 1998. He was medically retired after losing his leg, breaking his back, and suffering both spinal cord and brain injuries in an off-duty accident. (Click here to see segment of Discovery Channel documentary of Trevor’s accident.)

During his time with the sheriff’s department, Trevor worked at several different stations; including Robert Presley Detention Center, Southwest Station in Temecula, Hemet/Valle Vista Station, Ben Clark Public Safety Training Center, and Lake Elsinore Station; along with other locations.

Trevor’s assignments included Corrections, Patrol, DUI Enforcement, Boat and Personal Water-Craft based Lake Patrol, Off-Road Vehicle Enforcement, Problem Oriented Policing Team, and Personnel/Background Investigations. He finished his career while working as a Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Investigator and was a court-designated expert in child abuse and child sex-related crimes.

Trevor has been married for more than 28 years and was a foster parent to more than 60 children over 13 years. He is now an adoptive parent and his “fluid family” includes 13 children and 15 – but soon to be 16 – grandchildren.

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