Brunswick police promise drones won't leave the tracks

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BRUNSWICK — The Police Department presented the Town Council with a policy for the department’s pilot drone program Tuesday evening.

Councilors last November approved the use of the unmanned aerial vehicles for the initiative, which is part of a partnership between the department and the Federal Rail Administration to reduce fatalities along railroad tracks.

Police Cmdr. Thomas Garrepy said he hopes the program, which was developed as an extension of a program first launched about two years ago, will be able to kick off in early spring. 

The first phase of the program involved installing live-action cameras on some sections of the Brunswick tracks to monitor trespassing. The cameras, and, by extension the drones, are part of a push from the Federal Railroad Administration to reduce pedestrian rail deaths across the country after a national spike in recent years. 

For the first two years of the drone program, Garrepy said, the drones will be used strictly for monitoring the tracks for trespassers, grade crossing safety and education purposes. The Federal Rail Administration will own the equipment during that period.

After the Police Department gains ownership of the drones, Garrepy said he foresees the equipment being used for a range of other police duties, such as search and rescue, hazardous materials inspection and crash reconstruction.

He added he plans to have up to half a dozen officers trained to use the drones, and that right now the requirement is for operators to be re-certified every two years.

“I’m looking long term, not short term,” Garrepy said. 

Newly elected District 7 Councilor James Mason asked Garrepy to explain what was meant by the educational uses of the drones during the first two years of the pilot program.

Garrepy said if the drones were to be sent out the next day, for instance, and the police found a trespasser on the tracks through the drone, a citation would not be issued.

Instead, he said, the officer would use it as a teachable moment.

“We would send an officer over to them, have a conversation, maybe hand out one of the grade-crossing safety cards we have that warn people of the dangers of high-speed rails, and the danger of being on the tracks,” he said.

Garrepy clarified that he didn’t mean police would not be taking action against people who trespass, but through the use of the drones there would be “no disciplinary action for two years.”

District 6 Councilor Jane Millett asked what would happen if police discovered a crime in progress while surveying the tracks.

“If we’re flying up for one reason and we find another crime in progress, we can certainly take action on that,” Garrepy said.

Mason also expressed concern about potential infringement of residents’ privacy rights by the drones.

“It’s going to include the backyards, the privacies of people who are going to be in this area, when we’re just talking about railroads,” Mason said. “So I’m a little bit concerned about that.”

Garrepy said in everyday duties, the department might catch private property in photos or videos, such as when taking aerial photos of a crash scene. He said though the drones may see other things while in the air, his department would not be looking for anything past the tracks.

“We’re not going to be flying over people’s private property looking for stuff without a search warrant, I will assure you of that,” Garrepy said. “What we’re looking for is general surveillance of the tracks as we’re going down them, and we have no reason to go outside of what our parameters are.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

Railroad tracks outside the Amtrak Downeaster layover facility in Brunswick, where a new Police Department program will use unmanned drones to patrol tracks for trespassers.