Hamden Approves Purchase of Drone with Federal Coronavirus Funding in Close Vote

Hamden will use part of a federal grant to purchase a drone for its police and fire departments, whose chiefs say that it will help with search and rescue operations. The grant comes from the Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding Program administered by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The $33,498 DJI Matrice 300 RTK drone, equipped with zooming cameras and thermal imaging, was the most expensive item in the $82,363 grant package that included $26,000 for an update to the Kronos Workforce Telestaff scheduling program, $17,693.69 for personal protective equipment, $1,296.49 for a portable storage shed, $2,163 for two disinfectant sprayers and solution to sanitize police vehicles and other areas, and $1,711.82 for utility carts and storage bins.

The Hamden Legislative Council voted 7-6 to approve at its July 20 meeting despite concerns that the drone was an improper use of the grant funds and that it could be used for police surveillance. District 8 representative Kristen Dolan abstained from the vote.

All the expenses for the grant, including the drone, were approved by the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Hamden Acting Police Chief John Sullivan said that the drone would primarily be used, by both the police and fire departments, for search and rescue operations. To meet the requirements of the grant, the drone could also be equipped with a public address system and be used to notify people who are homeless of available resources.

At-large representative Dominique Baez said that if the money could be used for a drone to notify people who are homeless of services they can use, it could be used to provide other services. 

District Five representative Justin Farmer, who voted against the proposal, said the grant should be used for COVID-related expenses like more protective equipment instead of a “toy to surveil poor black and brown communities.”

Sullivan said the drone was a serious piece of equipment that could help the town, and noted the grant does include over $17,000 for protective equipment. He pressed the point that the drone would mainly be used for search and rescue operations. There have been 1,300 reports of missing people to the department over the last five years, he said. 

Police officers and firefighters search heavily-wooded areas for missing people, including people with dementia and lost hikers on Sleeping Giant, Sullivan said.

Fire Chief Gary Merwede said he was excited about the idea of having the drone as a shared resource with the police. The fire department is dispatched to Sleeping Giant to look for lost or injured hikers more than 200 times a year, Merwede said. It would be more difficult to use for searches in the spring and summer when there is a heavy tree canopy, but could help the fire department in other ways, like spotting brush fires, he said.

“When we have car accidents up on the parkway typically we’re using handheld devices. So if we have a flipped over car in the middle of the night nobody’s in it, we’re looking for ejected people. It would be helpful to be up in a high location looking down with thermal imaging for people,” Merwede said.

The council considered the grant package in June, but delayed a vote because of concerns the drone could be used for surveillance. The council asked to see a written policy governing the police department’s use of the drone before it voted on the grant, but was only able to see a draft policy that needs approval from the town police commission.

Farmer moved to postpone a vote on the grant until the council could hold a public hearing on “drone surveillance.” Farmer said that allowing the police department to purchase a drone marks a significant change, and there should at least be a public hearing and an official policy on its use before the council approves the purchase.

Sullivan said he did not intend to use the drone for surveillance, and that the department would need a warrant to use the drone in that way.

Council President Mick McGarry sought to ease privacy concerns by adding provisions that the done be housed at the fire department house and that the Police Commission would hear the council’s concerns in drafting a policy for the police use of the drone. Sullivan said that he did not oppose either provision.

Farmer’s motion was defeated in a 7-7 vote.

According to Sullivan, the department rarely gets grants of this size, and the department wanted to use the opportunity to buy a drone, something he said he believes all police departments will have in the future.

“If we don’t get this today and in a year or two from now you want to get this piece of equipment, you know, trying to find the money in a very tight budget will be tough,” he said.

If the council rejected the drone, the department could go back to the federal government with another option. Sullivan said the second option was to buy an industrial sweeper for the lower garage level, which the department now contracts to have cleaned.