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Pullman council hears pitch for police drones

By Chelsea Embree Lewiston Tribune

PULLMAN – Changes could be coming to Pullman’s streets and air space, and Police Chief Gary Jenkins wants to hear what the public thinks about those changes.

At Tuesday’s Pullman City Council meeting, Jenkins presented information on the possible use of drones by the police department, updates to Pullman’s taxi ordinance to accommodate Uber and the possible regulation of all-terrain vehicles. No action was taken on the discussion items.

The possible use of drones comes as police departments nationwide increasingly use the unmanned aerial systems. Jenkins told the council Tuesday he’d like to use the devices to assist in search-and-rescue operations, document outdoor crime scenes and major traffic collisions, assist the fire department in their tactical operations, observe flooding and coordinate traffic – after Washington State University football games, for example.

In particular, Pullman police could use drones to assist other agencies, Jenkins said. He noted the Whitman County Sheriff’s Office is more frequently involved with search-and-rescue missions than the Pullman police.

Matthew Taylor, an assistant professor in computer science at WSU, is working with Pullman police to research the drones and help develop a program for their use.

Jenkins said he recommends holding at least one public meeting to get input from the community, similarly to the interest a few years ago in installing cameras in Adams Mall, an area on College Hill populated with a number of businesses.

“That was, I think, a very successful deployment of those cameras after taking public input, and I think we were able to give a good level of comfort (to) the community because they did have a say into what our policy was going to be,” Jenkins said.

Councilor Al Sorenson agreed at least one public meeting should be held.

“This is going to get involved with privacy and all kinds of things going on,” he said. “I think we want to be very prudent on whatever we decide to do here.”

Jenkins wants more public input regarding possible changes to Pullman’s ordinance that regulates taxis, as representatives from Uber have become increasingly interested in operating in the city.

Under that ordinance, taxi drivers are required to undergo a fingerprint-based background check through the police department. The smartphone app-based transportation service uses a third-party contractor to provide background checks based on Social Security numbers.

“Looking at Uber’s requirements on their background checks and what they weed drivers out for, (it) is much more stringent than our current background requirements,” Jenkins said.

Sorenson recalled the “awful long process” of initially establishing the taxi ordinance, and said he didn’t want to have two different standards for taxi drivers and Uber drivers.

“It was all about public safety,” Sorenson said. “It was a big deal. I think we still want to keep that up front.”

At least one Uber driver is currently licensed to operate in the city, with two to three more applying, Sorenson noted, questioning whether it was necessary to change the ordinance.

The final topic up for discussion Tuesday night concerned regulating the use of all-terrain vehicles on city streets. Jenkins said that’s currently illegal, though the vehicles are allowed on sidewalks.

“Pullman has a long history of ATVs providing snowplowing services for residents and businesses in the city,” he said.

Jenkins presented a draft ordinance for the council to possibly amend and consider at a future meeting. That draft included limiting ATVs to city streets that have speed limits of 35 mph or less, requiring the vehicles to be registered, enforcing the rules of the road for drivers and not allowing passengers ages 5 and younger.

Sorenson said he thought regulation of the vehicles was a “good” step.

“I think they provide a great service, but now they’re going to have to come up to snuff, according to the ordinance, to make sure they’re legal to be out in the street,” he said.

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