San Diego-Area Cops: We’re Not Interested in Drones – Yet

San Diego-Area Cops: We’re Not Interested in Drones – Yet

Photo by Sam Hodgson

3D Robotics employees test several drones. Early this year, Tijuana police bought at least three drones from 3D Robotics.

This story has been updated.

Police in the two big cities on either side of San Diego now have drones in their arsenals but cops here say they aren’t rushing to deploy them.

The Los Angeles Police Department announced late last week it acquired two small camera-toting drones with night-vision capabilities. On the other side of the border, new Tijuana Mayor Jorge Astiazarán Orcí wants to make drones a key part of his public safety strategy. Early this year, Tijuana police bought at least three drones from 3D Robotics, a company with San Diego ties, and recently started testing them.

But five of San Diego’s biggest law enforcement agencies told Voice of San Diego they aren’t looking to buy drones anytime soon.

Police elsewhere are increasingly using drones to monitor crowds, gather evidence after car accidents and track missing people and fugitives, among other tacks. Meanwhile, civil liberties groups and others have raised concerns about what near-constant surveillance could mean for residents’ privacy.

The furor surrounding drones has inspired many law-enforcement agencies to approach them more cautiously than other recording tools such as body cameras or traditional surveillance cameras. The International Association of Chiefs of Police, one of the most influential police groups, released recommendations for law enforcement drone use in 2012. The IACP urged police departments to request warrants when they may intrude on privacy rights and even consider using reverse 911 when a drone may be deployed in a particular neighborhood.

The Chula Vista, Escondido and Oceanside police departments say they haven’t discussed using drones. San Diego police and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, however, appear to have given the concept more thought.

“Small, inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicles could be very useful to the San Diego Police Department in certain circumstances,” said San Diego Police Lt. Kevin Mayer, a police spokesman. “As an example, a small drone would work very well if we wanted to look into the second-story window of a building where there was an armed and barricaded suspect.  And with no high ground nearby it might be the only way to see inside.”

That doesn’t mean San Diego police are looking to get into the drone business just yet. Mayer said San Diego police are waiting on more regulatory clarity from the FAA, state legislators and the courts, and want to discuss potential uses with the community and city leaders before they’d give them a try.

The state Assembly overwhelmingly approved a bill earlier this year that requires cops to get a warrant to use a drone except in emergencies,  bars weaponizing drones and forces them to delete footage within six months of a drone flight. The measure’s now making its way through the state Senate. A handful of federal legislators have introduced drone-related legislation that would regulate police use.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, meanwhile, at least put out feelers about getting some drones in the past.

A group working to track government agencies that use drones criticized the Sheriff’s Department a couple years ago after public records from another police agency revealed the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department got a sales quote and a demonstration from Vista-based drone supplier Datron World Communications in 2011. The Sheriff’s Department hadn’t disclosed those actions in an earlier records request.

A spokeswoman said the department didn’t make any purchases after that 2011 meeting and does not currently have any interest in acquiring drones.

“We routinely have demonstrations and presentations on a variety of topics.  Some we decide are useful for the department and others do not aid in our mission,” spokeswoman Jan Caldwell said. “Drones fall into the latter category.”

But just because those agencies don’t have their own drones doesn’t mean they don’t have access to them.

Records released as part of an ongoing lawsuit between the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit civil liberties group, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, revealed the federal agency’s Predator drones assisted several sheriffs offices and federal agencies about 700 times between 2010 to 2012. But U.S. Customs didn’t release the names of the sheriffs departments, saying doing so could harm ongoing investigations.

Spokespeople for the five local agencies we spoke with said they hadn’t used federal agencies’ drones or weren’t aware of instances where they had.

It’ll also likely be up to them to disclose their own drone use if they ever do acquire them.

Government agencies and businesses that want to fly drones must get a certificate of authorization from the FAA but regulators have only publicly released applications filed through February 2012, meaning many agencies that have gotten the go-ahead remain under the radar. EFF has pushed for a searchable database of applications but so far, the FAA has simply posted backlogged data about the applications.

For now, only one local entity’s efforts to obtain a drone have been captured in those data dumps.

Barona Band of Mission Indians Risk Management Office in Lakeside submitted an application for a drone in 2011 but a spokeswoman told VOSD that the tribe has since canceled its request for a fire-suppression drone.

Two other applications came from the U.S. Air Force, which isn’t using drones for law-enforcement purposes.

This is part of our quest digging into the drone industry in San Diego. Check out the previous story, San Diego’s Second Chance at Drone Domination – and the next in our series – What I Learned Flying a Drone.

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Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

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