FORT COLLINS, Colo. — In 2017, Fort Collins police launched drones to investigate serious and fatal crashes for the first time.
The program’s first flight was in August, and police used the technology seven times during the course of crash investigations last year.
The drones help police snap photos faster and open roads sooner, according to members of Fort Collins police CRASH team, which responds to serious crashes.
In the past, police had to close the affected road or intersection, use small yellow tents to mark evidence and collect measurements between the markers. They might place anywhere from 40 to 150 evidence tents.
That painstaking process took hours — sometimes more than six — during which frustrated motorists couldn’t drive through the area.
With the use of drones, police continue to mark evidence with tents but can expedite the process by snapping overhead photos and then calculating measurements after the scene has reopened.
Police will still spend several hours on scene examining evidence and taking close-up photographs, but the drone can help shave several hours off the process.
“At the scene, all we’re really doing with the drone is taking pictures. We can take those pictures and bring them back,” said officer Drew Jurkofsky, a CRASH team member trained in scene reconstruction.
“We’ll still spend two to three hours taking the measurements, but we do that (at the police station) instead of in the roadway.”
Police also said they close roads or intersections in serious cases but try to limit the closure.
“If you see us taking an entire intersection, it means it’s serious or at least it looks that way on face value,” said Sgt. Sara Lynd, who leads the CRASH team. “We try not to take anything that we don’t need.”
Police emphasize that closing a road protects officers on scene and protects evidence that would otherwise be lost under the tires of passing cars.
“There’s a lot of evidence at a crash scene that isn’t readily apparent,” Jurkofsky said. “A lot of that evidence, if cars drive over it, it’s gone. It’s very transient.”
Drones won’t replace the rest of the investigative techniques police use, though.
“It’s not the end-all be-all,” said officer Tim Brennan, another member of the CRASH team. “There are limitations where you can fly” — such as in areas with dense foliage or power lines, and when the weather is bad. They also take more time when light is low and at night.
That being said, Fort Collins police anticipate that other agencies in the county will begin using drones more regularly in their own crash investigations because they act as a helpful tool in collecting more evidence.
Fort Collins Police Services, the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, Loveland and Colorado State University police departments, Poudre Fire Authority, and Loveland Fire Rescue Authority collectively launched a regional unmanned aerial system program in late June 2017 to assist in investigations, including serious crashes and backcountry search and rescue operations.
The six participating agencies have a total of five drones, and each agency has a group of FAA-certified pilots. They’ve outlined policies, procedures, and privacy and safety information on larimeruas.com.