Most Law Enforcement Agencies Keep Clear from Drone Use in Searches

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A final kiss good-bye on a chilly December morning would be the last time Tiffany Matthews would ever see her fiancé.

“It never crossed my mind that something bad had happened,” Matthews said.

On the eve of the 49er’s-Seahawks game in December of 2013, Tiffany and her fiancé, Eric Garcia, left Colfax for San Francisco, but they split up when Garcia went back home for his wallet.

“When he didn’t show up to the football game on Sunday, I knew something was really wrong,” Matthews said.

The search and rescue efforts began, but not the way Matthews had hoped.

At $1,000 an hour, the Placer County Sheriff’s Office used their helicopter to search for Garcia for two hours. But this particular part of Placer County made it nearly impossible to spot anything on the ground.

“I asked them to use a drone,” Matthews said, but the Placer County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have one.

droneThat’s where drone-enthusiast Jim Bowers came in. The local Colfax artist jumped at the opportunity to put goggles on, and prepare his $1,800 DJI Phantom drone for takeoff, aiding Garcia’s family with their search efforts.

Bowers spent three full days flying his drone where a helicopter couldn’t, between ground-level and 400 feet up, beneath the trees.

Law enforcement agencies across the Sacramento Valley aren’t touching drones, despite their apparent usefulness.

“Would we want a drone? Probably, yes. Is it something we need, though?” Lt. John Poretti with the Placer County Sheriff’s Office told FOX40.

Citing various reasons, some local law enforcement agencies told FOX40 drones are “too costly,” “not needed” or “not wanted,” and some even admitted they weren’t sure if they legally could.

VIDEO: Drones Helping Fight Rim Fire in Toulumne County

FAA regulations permit local law enforcement agencies to use drones for search and rescue but in order to fly, the FAA requires public agencies to make a request through an online process, which can take 60 days. Emergency requests can be granted faster, but the FAA says those requests don’t come in often.

As a hobbyist, Bowers has no ties to a public agency, which means he doesn’t need approval from the FAA to fly his drone but he still has to follow regulations. If he doesn’t, the FAA can step in.

“Would we consider it in the future? I’m sure it would have advantages for us. Right now, there’s nothing on the table,” Poretti told FOX40.

As it stands, Bowers is the local go-to drone operator.

Garcia’s body was not found until the snow melted eight days after he disappeared. He was found off of I-80 by a Placer County Sheriff’s deputy on motorcycle.

“If you can use a drone to save a life, why wouldn’t you?” Bowers asked.

The answer to that, for now, is up in the air.

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