Welcome to Chula Vista, where police drones respond to 911 calls
The technology is already out in force in some cities, but the true debate on privacy and policies is lagging behind.
In the skies above Chula Vista, California, where the police department runs a drone program 10 hours a day, seven days a week from four launch sites, it’s not uncommon to see an unmanned aerial vehicle darting across the sky. For officers on the force, tapping into this aerial reconnaissance resource has gone from a rare occurrence to a routine one. An officer about to enter a house where a potential suspect might ask “Is UAS available?” over the radio, and one of the department’s 29 drones—or “unmanned aerial systems”—could soon be hovering overhead. When the department needs to be slow and methodical, there’s almost always a drone involved, flying between 200 and 400 feet above the action. Most people wouldn’t realize it’s there.
Chula Vista uses these drones to extend the power of its workforce in a number of ways. Often, dispatchers need to make decisions about deploying officers. For example, if only one officer is available when two calls come in—one for an armed suspect and another for shoplifting—the officer will respond to the first one. But now, says Sergeant Anthony Molina, the Chula Vista Police Department’s public information officer, dispatchers can send a drone to surreptitiously trail the suspected shoplifter.
“The drone is never in danger,” he says. And neither is the officer controlling the drone, he adds. “They’re in a room.”
Drones aren’t new to police departments. More than 1,500 departments across the country now use them, mostly for search and rescue as well as to document crime scenes and chase suspects. Their use is limited, in a majority of cases, by the US Federal Aviation Administration, which requires that police departments fly drones only within operators’ line of sight. But starting in 2019, the agency began offering BVLOS (“beyond visual line of sight”) waivers, opening up the possibility of longer flights, remote operation, and more efficient and expansive fleets.
Chula Vista was the first police department to be awarded such a waiver. Now roughly 225 departments have them, and a dozen of those, including Chula Vista’s, operate what are called drone-as-first-responder programs, where drones are dispatched by pilots, who are listening to live 911 calls, and often arrive first at the scenes of accidents, emergencies, and crimes, cameras in tow.
The FAA is widely expected to fully legalize BVLOS within the next few years, which would make it easier for other such programs to launch; the sheriff-elect in Las Vegas, Nevada, already announced plans to pre-position hundreds of drones citywide to respond rapidly to crimes and shootings. New technologies such as autonomous flying, where drones can fly pre-programmed routes or respond to commands without the need for human operators, aren’t far away.
“This is rapidly escalating,” says Matt Sloane, founder of Atlanta-based Skyfire Consulting, which helps train law enforcement agencies on the use of drones. “Police departments are steadily growing their budgets for this technology. I think we’ll see autonomous deployment within two to three years.”
Many argue that it’s happening too fast. The use of drones as surveillance tools and first responders is a fundamental shift in policing, one that is happening without a well-informed public debate around privacy regulations, tactics, and limits for this technology.
There’s also little evidence available on the efficacy of policing in this fashion. Among the experts I reached out to for this story—including officers in Chula Vista, recognized for having the nation’s longest-running drone program, as well as vendors and researchers—none could point to a third-party study showing that drones reduce crime. Nor could anyone provide statistics on how many additional arrests or convictions came from using the technology. Typically, departments have argued that when crime declines, any technology that was in use played a part. But without specific stats or analysis to connect, say, drones to the improvement, it’s a case of correlation, not causation.
As the technology continues to spread, privacy and civil liberty groups are raising the question of what happens when drones are combined with license plate readers, networks of fixed cameras, and new real-time command centers that digest and sort through video evidence. This digital dragnet could dramatically expand surveillance capabilities and lead to even more police interactions with demographics that have historically suffered from overpolicing.
Arturo Castañares, publisher of La Prensa San Diego, a Spanish-language community paper that is suing Chula Vista to release drone footage, is alarmed by what he sees as the lack of proper transparency and says that public policies and legal systems have lagged behind the pace of technology.
“It’s a scary, slippery slope,” Castañares says. “I’m not even advocating that they shouldn’t have this technology. But my concern is that they’ve deployed without any policies and procedures in place.”
Speed and efficiency
Police departments like to share examples of daring and excitement: drones assisting officers in tracking down suspects, providing situational awareness during tense arrests, or helping to secure crime scenes. But drill down and ask about the real case for drones, and they’ll talk about the practical matter of clearing 911 calls.
Departments like Chula Vista claim their drone-as-first-responder programs guarantee that UAVs arrive fast and can quickly ascertain the seriousness of a situation, preventing officers and first responders from making unnecessary trips and freeing them to react to more pressing public safety issues. In the first four months of BVLOS drone usage in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 2022, according to department stats, drones responded to 1,400 total calls, clearing 21% of them with an average response time of 90 seconds (versus four minutes from a patrol unit).
“By clearing calls before responding units arrive, it allows us to reallocate officers to more pertinent calls,” said department spokesperson Ruby Contreras.
Sloane compares the use of drones as first responders to the introduction of computers in patrol cars; why wouldn’t you use this new, easily accessible information source as much as possible? “It just changes the entire approach to the call,” he says.
But the ease with which a drone can be dispatched remotely, by simply pointing and clicking on a map, has raised concerns.
“Up until the last like five to 10 years, there was this unspoken check and balance on law enforcement power: money,” says Dave Maass, director of investigations for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group that has pushed for more privacy protection. “You cannot have a police officer standing on every corner of every street. You can’t have a helicopter flying 24-7, because fuel and insurance is really expensive. But with all these new technologies, we don’t have that check and balance anymore. That’s just gonna result in more people being pulled through the criminal justice system.”
Maass points to the public stats about the Chula Vista program; a majority of the incidents being responded to by drones are what he calls “crimes of poverty,” including “personal disturbances” (26%), domestic violence, and traffic collisions; roughly 12% were labeled “psychological evaluation”. He believes these types of incidents, as opposed to more serious crimes, will be the focus of drone policing and video recording.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t used for more serious incidents. On September 23 in Austin, Texas, for example, a drone was used during an incident in which a SWAT team fatally shot a suspect. In an official statement, the city said that the incident was captured by bodycam footage and “other video sources” (other department communications noted that a UAV was involved). According to drone expert Gene Robinson, the tech has become so ubiquitous and commonplace, it no longer warrants special notice.
“It’s become more socially acceptable,” Robinson says. “Back in 2012, the privacy issue was a big deal. A cop flying a drone would be met with ‘Oh my god, it’s Big Brother.’ And many cop programs were shut down. Their constituency said absolutely not. Ten years later, we now have constituencies that are coming up and saying, ‘How come you aren’t keeping up with technology? And how come you’re not flying drones?’”
Chula Vista has said repeatedly that drones just respond to calls and don’t engage in any regular surveillance or patrols. However, other cities have clearly used drones to oversee public events, even protests. Beverly Hills has used them to monitor events like the Los Angeles Marathon. According to Luis Figueiredo, a drone detective with the Elizabeth Police Department in New Jersey, drones were used to monitor a recent protest in front of police headquarters by local students demanding reform to policing in schools. “We had units in the outskirts, and for traffic duty,” he says, “but we wanted to see if there was any issue with any violence that might come out of it.”
It is hard to tell from the outside how such surveillance is being used by individual police departments. But we do know that such technology has been gaining impressive new capabilities thanks to computer vision, machine learning, and data sharing among different law enforcement agencies.
According to Mahesh Saptharishi, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Motorola Solutions, which sells security software to many police departments, features now available include appearance search, which will scan through all available footage to find, say, a person wearing a blue T-shirt and black pants who was last seen at a specific location at a specific time. There’s also unusual-activity detection, which can flag an event such as a large group of people suddenly running away from a certain place.
Eyes in the sky
Many community activists and civil rights groups say the growing prominence of drones and BVLOS isn’t being matched by a commitment to transparency, or to the privacy of those who might be caught on camera.
There simply aren’t established policies, Sloane says; the FAA only worries about the use of airspace. In early 2022, an FAA-appointed rulemaking committee released preliminary regulations for BVLOS drones which were decried by civil liberties groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation because privacy protections for citizens were made optional instead of mandatory.
But Sloane says that he advises police departments to be open about how they’re using drones. “We tell the agencies we work with that they should be very explicit about the fact that they are not patrolling. We’re not looking for marijuana growing in your backyard,” he says. “A lot of police departments don’t want to tell anybody what they’re up to. You can’t do that in this case.”
Molina, the Chula Vista public information officer, makes a similar distinction in how the department’s drones are used. They’re treated “like an extension of our patrol officers who are responding to calls,” he says. “These are not patrol officers out there doing proactive work.” Molina says the department has reached out to community groups and posts the maps of the drone routes every day online. But as many have pointed out—and the department has admitted—the drones are recording on their way to and from events; when I asked the city why it needs to acquire and store this additional footage, the department declined to respond.
“People in the community have no awareness of what images are captured, how the footage is retained, and who has access,” says Pedro Rios, a human rights advocate with the American Friends Service Committee and a member of Chula Vista’s community tech council. “It’s a big red flag for a city that says it’s at the forefront of the smart city movement.”
After Castañares’s paper filed its lawsuit, which demands access to Chula Vista’s drone flyover recordings, Castañares was told he couldn’t have the footage because all of it had the potential to be used in some future investigation (the department has repeatedly denied public information requests for footage). Later, the department told him it would violate the privacy of citizens captured on tape to share the footage with the public, which he felt glossed over the possibility that some of the footage could be obfuscated to make it palatable for release, and seemingly missed the implication that it might be a violation to capture the footage in the first place.
The lack of access and accountability means it’s impossible to judge whether the drones’ publicized successes are worth the presence of more and more cameras flying overhead, Castañares says.
Elected city officials bear some responsibility, he says—they could have enacted policies to promote transparency before the drones were deployed. For now, decisions around policy and process often lie with the police. “The cops don’t think about disclosure. They don’t think about public policy. They think about policing,” he says. “They’re refusing to do anything differently.”
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