When Police Chief Robert Garofalo began lobbying for the West Windsor’s Police Department’s (WWPD’s) first drone more than a year ago, he envisioned an opportunity to embrace cutting-edge technology for the community’s benefit.
And in the year since the first of the department’s six drones lifted off for its inaugural aerial view of the township, the police chief, WWPD and its Drone Unit have not only seen the myriad ways these high-tech tools have helped West Windsor, but also been presented with numerous occasions to work with neighboring municipalities—while also inspiring them to invest their own resources in the game-changing gadgets.
It’s all thanks to West Windsor Gives Back, the organization established by Mayor Hermant Maranthe, that raised funds to provide the police department with five drones in 2018 in observance of the WWPD’s 50th anniversary.
“If it wasn’t for West Windsor Gives Back and the mayor, we wouldn’t have a Drone Unit,” Garofalo said. “With the more-than-80 call-outs we had in the past year, and the number of missing persons calls we’ve gotten, we wouldn’t have found those people without all the donations that our residents made to fund the unit.
“All that money allowed us to get the drones we have: We still have not spent one township dime on them, it’s all come from West Windsor Gives Back. It’s just been incredible.”
Each year, West Windsor Gives Back selects a worthy local beneficiary to support through dedicated fundraising effort; WWPD was its first recipient.
“The drones were the first time that West Windsor Gives Back made a donation to the police department, but they’ve made it a yearly event—this year, the Princeton Junction Fire Departments was the beneficiary of their charity. It’s a great organization,” said Lt. Danny Mohr, who heads up the Drone Unit.
Harnessing the power of airborne technology wasn’t as simple as purchasing the fleet of drones, though. Both Chief Garofalo and Lieutenant Mohr emphasized the amount of research, paperwork, certification, and monthly training that they and the rest of the unit have faced—and still do—to legally operate the drones.
In fact, the department was so thorough in doing its homework that Garofalo said drone technology changed dramatically from the initial proposal to the actual implementation of utilizing drones on the force.
“Everyone in the unit—which they volunteered to be a part of—had to take the standard Part 107 test, so we are all certified 107 pilots,” Garofalo explains. “We comply with all of the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] regulations and rules. This was all done even before we put the drones on the ground or in the air: We wanted to get the licenses first—and let me say, I went for my doctoral exams, and I think the test for the 107 was harder than that.
“The stuff you have to learn about—heights and land and maps and how to read everything—was incredible. But I thought it was important, since the unit was brand new, for myself and Lt. Mohr to also be trained, since we have to know what we’re supervising.”
Mohr said he had to develop the policy and procedures for the department’s drone units, develop requirements for the officers and drone pilots in the department, apply for authorization through the FAA for the ability to fly at night in Mercer County, since emergencies happen 24 hours a day.
“I wanted to research the policies other departments use throughout the country to develop West Windsor’s policy, so I had to do all the legwork up front before we started the program to ensure we’re doing everything properly and according to federal and state guidelines,” Mohr said.
All that effort has more than paid off, both officers agree. Having airborne cameras offer a perspective that boots-on-the-ground law enforcement officers can’t readily see, go places that may present an increased physical risk to search parties or first responders, or survey sensitive scenarios like a hostage or barricade situation helps to ultimately keep more people safe—to say nothing of how they make cops’ work more efficient, allow for a more accurate allocation of manpower, and overall increase response time.
“Drones have been around for ages now, but the emergency application is an emerging technology,” said Mohr, explaining that accident reconstruction, search and rescue, and assistance at both fires and crime-scene investigations have been just some of the examples of drones making laborious, potentially dangerous both more efficient and less dangerous. “We’ve taken them to numerous scenes not only in West Windsor but also in other jurisdictions in Mercer County: Rather than sending an officer into a potentially dangerous situation where they possibly could have gotten shot, one of our drones can fly around and, using the camera, we can make an assessment from a safe distance and within minutes.”
Virginia Manzari, council president and a member of West Windsor Gives Back, has been thrilled with the idea of empowering the WWPD with modern technology.
“I’m really excited about the drone,” she said. “At the Mayor’s Ball last year, we had the chief get up and speak, and he gave an update on what they’ve been using the drone for, and how excited he was to be able to benefit from it. He got a lot of really great feedback from people: They said, ‘Wow, I had no idea that these guys had this and what they were using it for.’”
That kind of response altered how West Windsor Gives Back formatted its future fundraisers.
“After that, we decided that every time we have one of these events, we will bring in the prior year’s recipient to talk about how they used whatever equipment they bought with the money that was raised by West Windsor Gives Back,” Manzari adds.
The ongoing success of WWPD’s Drone Unit has caught the attention of numerous nearby towns, further encouraging a sense of partnership between West Windsor and its Mercer County neighbors—and even inspiring other police departments to add drones to their own forces.
“Three other agencies in Mercer County are currently in the process of buying drones now,” Mohr said.
Of course, not everyone is a fan of the drones—but the officers are working hard to gently educate those who have their doubts.
“There’s always people who hear ‘drones’ and instantly think they’re being spied on—but if we’re spying on you in your private home, it’s illegal no matter what we use.” said Garofalo. “People worry about the thermals and us looking into their houses: I don’t care what the television shows you, we just don’t have that kind of technology. Besides, we’d still need to have a court-ordered search warrant, drone or not.”
But dispelling a little pop-culture-curated misinformation every now and then is no big deal for Garafolo, who ultimately is grateful for technology that offers peace of mind to not only West Windsor residents but also their neighbors.
“The key to the program’s usefulness is that we have drones at the ready,” he said. “They six pilots we have, they’re in the patrol cars and they’re ready to go: To go back to headquarters, pick them up, and get them out, that’s all time wasted. When you get a call from a frantic mother whose kid ran into the woods and it’s 17 degrees out and there’s a lake nearby, you want an officer who can pull right up and, in minutes, put a drone in the air. That’s the key to the program: It’s being out there and being ready.”