Brunswick police try to calm concerns about drones

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BRUNSWICK — The Police Department won’t be the only force in the country using drones to monitor local railroad tracks.

The department was approved by the Town Council last week to use the unmanned aerial vehicles.

Maine State Police also purchased three drones earlier this year for its crash reconstruction program, and have used them to take photos and measurements after car crashes. On Tuesday, state troopers held a demonstration in Augusta to show the public how the equipment is used.

And ABC News reported last weekend that Philadelphia-area police are using drones to check train tracks for terror threats, after an Al-Qaeda publication encouraged readers to target American rail systems with homemade derailing devices.

The Brunswick initiative is a pilot program, but part of an project between the department and the Federal Railroad Administration, which began roughly two years ago with the installation of live cameras. The goal of the program is to reduce fatalities on the tracks. 

“The cameras monitor foot traffic wirelessly, if there is any, on the railroad property, which then signals dispatch that there is activity,” said Cmdr. Thomas Garrepy, who went before the Town Council last week with the drone proposal. “When an alarm signals one of the cameras we send the closest cruiser, based on the GPS, to deal with the trespassing issue.”

Garrepy said the drone initiative will allow the force to patrol a larger area of the tracks than the cameras do now, while reducing manpower necessary and the danger to officers that is present with the current system.

He added that Brunswick has not had a death on the tracks in the 20 years he has been with the department, and the force is hoping to better educate people about train safety. 

The proposal was approved by a 7-2 vote. 

Resident Paul Whitcomb, who was not in attendance at the meeting but read about the vote afterward, expressed concern about the approval in an email.

“This program sounds suspicious, even if it isn’t, and suddenly having police drones ‘looking for people down the tracks’ alters the entire tenor of living in Brunswick,” Whitcomb said.

He added he was angry the item was voted on after 11:30 p.m., when the majority of the public had left, leaving little opportunity for public comment.

Garrepy said he understands the concerns about privacy, and the purpose of the drones initially will be to monitor the tracks. In the future, drones could be used for other purposes, such as evaluating car crashes or for search-and-rescue or fire operations.

Once the drones are purchased, Garrepy said he hopes to have a public demonstration similar to the one the state police held in Augusta.

“When I say the word ‘drone’ has a bad connotation, it gives you the effect that we’re going to be spying on people, which is not the case,” Garrepy said. “As I mentioned at the council meeting, this is not going to be a piece of equipment we are utilizing on a daily basis.”

Garrepy also said the funding for the equipment will come from the FRA, and the amount of money the force receives will dictate which equipment it will be able to buy. He said the drone proposal and funding is not related to Homeland Security grants Brunswick received earlier this month.

Garrepy added the effort is also unrelated to the terror prevention efforts in Philadelphia, and his idea to incorporate UAVs into Brunswick’s department came long before last week.  

“We’re still in the preliminary stages; this is all hinged on funding from the FRA,” Garrepy said. “So if tomorrow the FRA came back and said our budget has been squashed, it’s pretty much dead in the water until they get money.”

Once the funding is secured, Garrepy said he will begin more seriously researching what type of UAVs the department will purchase. He added that each time the department sends a drone out to survey the tracks, officers will be required to file a flight plan, providing details such as the reason and duration of the flight.

Ultimately, Garrepy said he hopes Brunswick residents with concerns will reach out to him.

“I honestly believe this is the next wave of technology, and what I wanna do is I want to rule out the ‘Big Brother’ fear that people have that we’re going to be peeking in windows and so forth,” he said. “Our key to success in this new adventure, as I call it, is transparency.”

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

An aerial photo of a car crash in Maine taken by an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, operated by the Maine State Police. 

Brunswick Police Department