Policy-shaping police drone program eyes expansion
Police leaders say the drone program has prevented potentially tragic shootings and clears non-emergency 911 calls
The San Diego Union-Tribune
CHULA VISTA, Calif. — During a City Council meeting last week, Chula Vista Police Chief Roxana Kennedy told a story about how officers avoided tragedy while responding to a 911 call about a man waving a small gun around in front of a taco shop on Broadway.
The first thing the department did was send a drone. It arrived in less than a minute and before any patrol vehicles got to the scene.
From a camera attached to that drone, an officer at police headquarters more than a half-mile away from the taco shop could see the man and what appeared to be a small handgun. He told responding officers on the ground exactly what was going on in real-time.
The man sat on a bench outside the shop and appeared to be talking to himself while waiving what looks like a gun in the air.
"He actually took the gun to his mouth," Kennedy said. "And the drone operator is thinking, 'oh my gosh, is this man going to commit suicide right in front of me?' He puts the gun to his mouth, picks up a cigarette, lights it and blows smoke."
The man didn't have a gun. It was a lighter that happened to be shaped like one.
With that information, responding officers calmly walked to the man and arrested him, without incident, on suspicion of using meth, said Capt. Vern Sallee, who oversees the drone program.
"If they'd rushed into that with limited information about the call and he spun around because he's scared of the cops and points the lighter at their general direction, we can see how easily that could become a tragedy," he said.
It wasn't the first time Chief Kennedy and Capt. Sallee have told that story while touting the department's "Drone as First Responder" program that launched October 2017.
Both of them have toured the country, speaking with representatives from the FBI, California Police Chiefs Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
As the only law enforcement agency that is part of the FAA's Integration Pilot Program, a program that seeks to establish the ground rules of incorporating drones into the national airspace, the Chula Vista Police Department is shaping drone policy that police departments throughout the country could one day adopt.
Since launching in October 2017, the Chula Vista Police Department has dispatched drones to 911 calls 1,509 times and drones have assisted in 224 arrests.
In about 36 percent of the time, drones respond to "disturbance" calls. The other most common types of calls are domestic violence, 21 percent; traffic collisions, 17 percent; psychological evaluations, 15 percent; and assaults, 10 percent.
Those numbers are expected to increase dramatically in 2020 because Chula Vista recently added a second launch site above Bayview Behavioral Health Hospital on Moss Street and Third Avenue.
Data shows that drones were dispatched 237 times in January, compared to 66 times in January 2019.
Between the original launch site atop police headquarters and the new one, the police department's drones can now cover the 17 square miles of Chula Vista west of Interstate 805.
That area only represents 30 percent of the city, but it is responsible for 70 percent of all 911 calls, Sallee said.
The Police Department's ultimate goal is to have drone coverage of the entire city. But without a funding source, that's unlikely to happen any time soon.
It would cost about $600,000 to expand the drone program throughout Chula Vista. The biggest expense is personnel costs because of an FAA requirement to have someone maintain a clear line of sight any time the drone is launched.
It's not a glamorous job. Someone has to stand on a roof top for 10 hours. It gets so cold up there sometimes that the department had to buy a portable heater.
If the FAA allows the police department to launch drones remotely, the costs plummet, Sallee said.
"There's a human being on the roof for 10 hours," Sallee said. "They need bathroom breaks. It's not comfortable. If it's hot and sunny or windy and rainy they are exposed to those elements. So that's another reason why we need to automate, so we don't have a person up there."
Both Kennedy and Sallee view the drones as the future of law enforcement. The chief called them "a game-changer," while the captain described them as "the most transformational technology in law enforcement during my whole career."
In addition to potentially avoiding tragic shootings by giving police officers real-time intelligence on 911 calls, drones improve the Police Department's quality of service by clearing non-emergency 911 calls and by responding to calls faster than patrol vehicles.
For example, when a store owner calls the police to complain about two people harassing customers in front of the business, the police sends a drone.
Sometimes the people are gone by the time the drone gets there. So, instead of sending a police officer, the drone operator simply calls the business owner, tells them the people are gone and clears the call, Sallee said.
In terms of response times, drones get to top priority emergency calls almost three minutes earlier than a patrol vehicle, Chief Kennedy said.
That gives police officers more time to prepare for the response while simultaneously feeding them live images from what is actually happening at the scene.
When the department began telling the community about the drone program back in 2017, there was some reservation from the public.
"We had questions," said Norma Cazares, local activist and co-chair of the police department's Community Advisory Committee. "One of the things the majority of the group was concerned about was private issues."
However, those concerns were put at ease when the department told the commission that it had been in contact with the ACLU and reviewed best practices while coming up with its drone policy.
The department committed to not using drones for general surveillance. Instead, drones are dispatched when a 911 call comes in.
Additionally, the department committed to transparency measures. Specifically, it established a publicly-accessible website that tracks each drone's flight path including the time and reason for the launch. On top of that, the department keeps daily statistics on how often drones are used and for what reasons.