The San Mateo Police Department is acquiring new technology that will be used to locate missing persons and solve auto burglary crimes, among other tasks.

The City Council last week signed off on the department’s plan to acquire two drones, also referred to as small unmanned aircraft systems, and additional license plate readers. The latter purchase will be in addition to the six license plate readers that have been used in the city since 2011.

“I love to see us using technology to keep our community safe,” said Deputy Mayor Eric Rodriguez at a meeting June 1. “Every time each one of us [councilmembers] runs for office the number one or maybe number two bullet point has always been community safety. This is something that really goes through with that and puts community safety at the forefront.”

The two drones each have different capabilities and complement each other, said police traffic Sgt. Shannon Hagan. A larger, more expensive model can fly in the air up to 40 minutes and is designed to withstand harsher weather conditions. It can also carry heavier equipment, including sophisticated cameras, a light system and speaker to communicate with people who are stranded, Hagan said.

The smaller model can stay in the air for up to 20 minutes and is easier to deploy. Both models weigh under 55 pounds and will never be equipped with weapons.

“[The smaller model] can be carried around so if we had something that needed to go up right away it’s easy to turn on, fire and send out. … The bigger one takes more work to deploy,” Hagan said. “If we have a barricaded subject or something that’s requiring more time while we have one aircraft coming down the other one can remain in its place and we don’t lose any of the overview surveillance time.”

In addition to the ones above, potential missions for the drones include responding to hostage situations and active shooters, disposing of explosive ordnance, disaster surveying and to investigate crime scenes or traffic collisions, among other tasks.

“This can all be done safely from a remote location,” Hagan said.

Recent incidents in San Mateo in which the drones would have been useful include a gang-related homicide — the drone could have been used to locate the weapon in an environmentally hazardous area — responding to a group of auto burglars in the area of the San Mateo County Medical Center and a hit-and-run pedestrian fatality, according to the report.

When an aerial perspective is necessary, the department currently relies on a traditional plane owned by the county that is a shared resource. The plane is operated by two pilots and a flight officer and costs $300 per hour to rent. It would cost more than $500,000 to replace the plane.

The two drones, including equipment costs for FAA licensing, training and aircraft systems, are expected to cost just $40,000.

The newly acquired license plate readers are also much more affordable than the ones acquired by the department just last year after the council agreed to replace the six devices at a cost of $108,124 or about $18,020 per unit.

Designed by Atlanta, Georgia-based Flock Safety, the new devices cost $2,000 per unit per year, including the physical equipment and backend software, at a total cost of no more than $50,000 annually. The anticipated service life of the existing license plate reading technology is about five years, resulting in approximately 45% cost savings per unit over that period of time, according to a staff report.

Both the drones and license plate readers are being funded by existing police department resources and at no additional cost to the general fund. 

The department has been using license plate reading devices on patrol cars and on traffic trailers while the new models will operate from stationary locations, such as light or utility poles. They’ll be placed in areas vulnerable to property crime and gang-related activity.

“A key strength of [license plate reading] technology is that police investigators can access near real-time information to rapidly deploy officers in the field to locate and apprehend criminals,” according to the report. “Having more locations with ALPR technology enhances this capability.”

Hagan said license plate reading devices will primarily be used to curb auto burglaries.

“The biggest priority is the auto burglaries in parking lots and parking facilities throughout town where we’re not getting the information we really need from eyewitnesses or surveillance cameras. These devices can essentially see in the dark and get us information about what kind of vehicles are coming and going.”

The data captured by the license plate readers is an image of a license plate with the date and time stamp when the photo was taken as well as the location of the device. The data is uploaded directly to the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, an intelligence sharing initiative owned and operated by the public safety agencies in the region. Access to the NCRIC data is strictly regulated and is for law enforcement personnel only, according to the report.

Per federal guidelines, the data is automatically deleted after one year, unless it is part of an ongoing investigation. Once the data is deleted, it cannot be retrieved.  

As for privacy with respect to the drones, the remote pilot in command will take all steps to ensure the camera is focused on the areas necessary to the mission and refrain from the collection of data concerning uninvolved people or places, according to the report.  

“Previously my big concerns with license readers and aerial surveillance was privacy, but I have to say it seems as though the privacy issue has been fairly well dealt with,” said Councilman Rick Bonilla. “I’m proud our police department has taken great strides to purchase affordable equipment that will enable us to better clamp down on crime, save time and be more efficient. I’m really starting to like these technologies.”

(650) 344-5200 ext. 102

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