Court OK’s sheriff launching drone
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DEVICE WILL ASSIST IN TRACKING FUGITIVES ZERTUCHE SAYS
Law enforcement has been given new eyes in the sky for special operations in South Texas this week.
La Salle County commissioners agreed on Monday evening, April 24, to let Sheriff Anthony Zertuche use a portion of his revenues from public auctions to purchase a drone and to train officers in its use.
The device will be used for surveillance in pursuits of undocumented immigrants and smugglers, and may help officers in the search for missing people, both the sheriff and Undersheriff Rene Sobrevilla told commissioners on Monday.
“We had previously been waiting for a donation of a drone, but it didn’t come through,” Zertuche said. “There have been a lot of bail-outs, and this will help us greatly. It will cover a large area of ground.”
La Salle County sheriff’s deputies have been engaged over the past three years in a number of smuggler pursuits in which vehicles filled with undocumented immigrants have been driven off the interstate and off rural highways and county roads in evasion tactics. Passengers have fled crash sites on foot and searches conducted by local officers and US Border Patrol agents have involved lengthy incursions into ranches with thick brush.
Some of those attempts at capturing fugitives will be aided by the drone, whose thermal imaging will also allow operators to detect heat signatures day and night, Sobrevilla said.
“We saw firsthand how a drone helped with the US Border Patrol capture of fugitives recently at Gardendale,” the sheriff said. “We were able to see them within minutes.”
Heat signatures of lost or missing people include children, the sheriff said, and deputies will be able to track individuals or identify places of concealment more quickly over the brush country than by conducting acre-by-acre searches that involve a large contingent of manpower.
The drone will cost $9,450 and includes additional batteries. Sobrevilla said the device is designed to return automatically to its operator when battery power runs low, obviating the need to search for the drone if it lands elsewhere.
Zertuche said he expects to have a fully trained and certified drone operator on each shift, and training costs will run as high as $1,000 for each. Certification includes registry with the Federal Aviation Administration and instruction in where a drone may be flown, at what altitude, and where it may not.
“We will know the restricted areas,” the sheriff said. He did not indicate whether the drone will be flown over residential areas, although deputies have pursued fugitives through Cotulla, Encinal and Gardendale neighborhoods.
County financial adviser Jorge Flores counseled commissioners in their deliberations on the purchase.
“If you want to fund it with auction money, he has plenty of money,” Flores said of the sheriff’s account that is supplemented by the sale of abandoned or seized cars, trucks and vans. “Every purchase over five thousand dollars has to be approved.”
The move allowing Zertuche to launch his drone program was made by Comm. Raul Ayala, seconded by Comm. Erasmo Ramirez and supported unanimously.