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New tools help Grass Valley police monitor homeless camps, fire danger

Last year, the Grass Valley Police Department launched an intensive effort in collaboration with Nevada County’s Homeless Outreach and Medical Engagement (HOME) team to clean up encampments in problem areas.

That meant a three-member team could — and often would — spend hours daily bushwhacking through difficult terrain and dense manzanita thickets in order to get homeless people into housing and connected to services.

Their job has gotten substantially easier this year, however, thanks to some purchases made possible by Measure E and Measure N sales tax funds. Measure E, which replaced Measure N, was expected to generate $5.6 million in fiscal year 2019-20, according to the city’s operating budget.

A UTV purchased a few months ago makes negotiating narrow, steep trails much easier, said police Detective Dennis Grube, one of the members of the department’s expanded Strategic Response Unit.

“I can cover so much more ground,” he said, adding the department hopes to add a trailer to help haul trash out of the woods.

Half of the purchase of the Polaris UTV, which cost $28,500, was funded by the Abandoned Vehicle Abatement program, which removes abandoned vehicles from throughout the county, said Police Chief Alex Gammelgard. Recently, Gammelgard noted, it was used to pull an abandoned golf cart out of rugged terrain off Loma Rica Drive.

Another game changer is the department’s drone, which they have been using on other operations as well, such as assisting with Search and Rescue operations countywide.

“If we were to walk the Loma Rica (ranch) area, it takes three to four hours,” said Sgt. Dan Kimbrough. “We can clear it with the drone in 15 minutes. It gives you a pretty good idea of what’s out there.”

The department purchased the drone in 2018 through Measure N funds, Gammelgard said. It spent less than $30,000 on the purchase as well as the training, which included accessories such as two cameras and the software, Gammelgard said.

“People think of a (drone as a) big military thing, that is being used to spy on people,” Kimbrough said. “We use it for search and rescue, not for surveillance. It’s phenomenal for (mapping campsites). It has a forward-looking infrared camera that can see actual campfires. It’s a neat, neat tool.”

Kimbrough put the department’s drone program together, acquiring the necessary clearances and approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration. They are allowed to fly up to 400 feet, only within line of sight, and the drone is equipped with both the FLIR (heat sensing) camera and a camera with a zoom lens. The department has the ability to livestream footage, and the software records every flight.

The drone can do the work that used to require a helicopter, at a fraction of the cost, Kimbrough said.

The Strategic Response Unit team currently is comprised of two primary investigators handling major crimes, two street crime investigators and two officers.

The team is tasked with a variety of policing duties, including patrolling the rural areas of Grass Valley to find illegal camps and campfire hazards. The team members interact with homeless individuals and work with various community organizations to offer services.

“The idea was always to do this, but staffing was an issue,” said Kimbrough, adding the unit has been fully staffed since last October. “This allows us to put all our resources into an incident without getting pulled away for day-to-day patrol issues.”

“We’re all cross-trained for homicides or other major crimes, or for large drug cases,” said Detective Sara Perry.

Mapping fire danger

“One thing we have been very focused on is fire danger,” Kimbrough added. “Last year, we started locating and tagging all the camps and trash areas, tagging with GPS on our phones on an overlay map of the city so we can plot those camps within the city limits.”

The map’s color-coded dots show abandoned camps, trash sites, active camps and areas where there have been transient-related fires. An operator can click on the dots and bring up photos that have been uploaded from each site, Kimbrough explained.

Team members have seen a marked difference from last year, Kimbrough said. There are five camps in the area around one small clearing just off Brunswick and Idaho Maryland roads, Grube said. They are all inactive, however.

“Two weeks ago, there were three camps just in this section,” said Officer Mel Bird. “They have moved on.”

Bird and Grube estimated there are less than 20 homeless campers on the Loma Rica property currently, in large part because state COVID-19 funding has placed a lot of homeless locals in hotels.

Throughout the area, there are still three or four active camps on the Loma Rica property, Kimbrough said.

“We probably have 60 or so trash (sites) we would like to clean up,” he said, pointing to one large dump that includes an old cook stove. “You could see how this would all go up (in flames) in windy conditions.”

Bird said they talked recently with the HOME team about arranging a large-scale cleanup, which will require arranging for dumpsters from Waste Management and lining up volunteers to help with the labor.

“I’m confident we can get a lot of people out,” Kimbrough said. “It’s just a lot harder to get a large group together, with COVID-19.”

A large cleanup was done a few months ago behind Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital, Grube said, estimating they took out 20 truckloads of garbage.

“Hopefully, with this unit having a handle on (what’s out there), it will be a lot easier to monitor it now — and easier to access,” Kimbrough said. “This unit is so flexible and ready to respond. … These guys are working hard to build relationships — and to keep the public informed. People need to see what they’re paying for, what’s being accomplished with these funds.”

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email lizk@theunion.com or call 530-477-4236.


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