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As 350 protesters outside the Escondido Police Department called for reforms after the killing of George Floyd, the agency did something it hadn’t before. It monitored a protest with a drone.
A few days later, the Carlsbad Police Department’s drone hovered over hundreds of Carlsbad protesters who marched, chanted and knelt alongside the Pacific Ocean.
The Carlsbad police drone captured protesters and counter-protesters “exchanging words,” as well as a person in a truck circling the area and yelling at protesters. Knowing this, officers on the ground intervened, said a Carlsbad Police Department official.
Ultimately, recent protests in the two cities unfolded peacefully.
Beyond Carlsbad and Escondido, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department earlier this year adopted a policy that allows drone surveillance of protests. While law enforcement agencies are eager for a birds-eye view of protests, using drones in this way comes at a time of heightened anxiety over police power, as well as fears of technology stifling people’s right to protest.
“I don’t think they need to be looking at us with an eye-in-the sky,” said protester Julian Jones at a June 7 Carlsbad protest. Jones, who didn’t know about the police drone until being interviewed, said he didn’t see a need given the peaceful nature of recent Carlsbad protests.
Like the prior two days, protesters marched in waves from the intersection of Carlsbad Village Drive and Carlsbad Boulevard to Cannon Park. In the first group, a hand drum punctuated chants like “No justice, no peace.”
The events were a response to the death of Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. That officer has been charged with second-degree murder.
Drone video of the protests will be stored under a Carlsbad policy that says recordings are retained for at least one year, or potentially longer for some criminal investigations. To guard against unlawful spying, the American Civil Liberties Union argues that police drone footage should be kept no more than 24 hours.
The Carlsbad department says it doesn’t use footage to track protesters, nor are drones outfitted with facial recognition technology.
“As long as they’re not using facial recognition, I don’t have a problem with it,” said protester Jenny Hall.
In Carlsbad, recent protests weren’t the first to be watched from above. Two years ago, the police department flew a drone over a Cannon Park demonstration against a Trump administration policy of separating immigrant children and parents at the border.
A month earlier, plans to monitor a Council meeting protest via drone were called off when the meeting was canceled.
Carlsbad police Sgt. Shaun Lawton said the technology can identify instigators in the crowd — or guide the agency’s response in case demonstrations turn violent. Ahead of the event, the department said it was investigating a threat of violence made against the protest that circulated on social media.
“It’s merely an observational tool,” Lawton said of drones. “We don’t want to infringe on any rights.”
The department has sought input on its drone program at open house events — and answered public questions during demonstrations at high schools and other venues, said Lawton.
Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, a political sociology professor at the University of San Diego’s Kroc School of Peace Studies, said these actions don’t appear to constitute meaningful public input. He also took issue with the fact that a community oversight panel doesn’t keep an eye on the Carlsbad drone program.
“‘Trust us’ is not sufficient, from the police or any other entity monitoring the public,” he said in an email.
As an act of transparency, the Carlsbad Police Department last year released internal logs describing drone flights in response to a public records request. Only one other San Diego police agency, the Escondido Police Department, did the same.
Amid reform calls, the Carlsbad Police Department said it recently banned a controversial neck hold, bringing the agency into full compliance with eight policies recommended by a national campaign designed to prevent excessive use of law enforcement force.
The San Diego Police Department and La Mesa Police Department did not respond to questions about whether they’ve dispatched drones to protests.
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department in a statement said it “respects the constitutional right for people to peacefully protest. We use available methods and resources to ensure a safe environment for all involved.”
While it’s unclear if the department has flown drones over protests, the agency signaled it would do so in a drone policy adopted in January.
Per the policy, the Sheriff’s Department can send drones to demonstrations when there’s “substantiated potential” for civil unrest or criminal activity. Other acceptable uses include search-and-rescue missions and crime scene photography.
The department, which was the first police agency in the county to launch a drone program, built up its program to 14 drones. It envisions 20 drones in a few years.
The Chula Vista and Oceanside police departments said they haven’t monitored recent protests via drone. Oceanside didn’t rule out deploying the technology in this manner at future demonstrations, and Chula Vista didn’t respond to a question about its plans.
“We encourage peaceful protests,” said Oceanside Lt. Aaron Doyle.
Dave Maass, a researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said an aerial dragnet risks suppressing the First Amendment rights of peaceful protesters, outweighing what he called the small benefit of drones.
Maas added police drones at protests could further damage the precarious relationship between the public and law enforcement departments. “It makes people nervous to see a police drone overhead,” he said.
Even before the demonstrations, he said there has been mounting pushback over law enforcement surveillance, including San Diego’s smart streetlights program.
Since late 2017, the Escondido Police Department has used drones for everything from supporting its SWAT team to recovering stolen cars to looking for a stolen donkey.
On June 1, it added watching over protests to the list. Prompting the decision, Lt. Craig Miller cited a La Mesa demonstration in late May that by night devolved into looting. The June 1 Escondido protest was peaceful, as was another one on June 3, when Escondido Police Chief Ed Varso and other officials knelt with protesters in an act of solidarity.
“We just want to make sure that if something does get out of hand we’re able to see where the crowd is moving and identify any illegal acts,” Miller said. He added the department didn’t record the pair of protests but would have if they went south.
The police drone, Miller said, wasn’t outfitted with facial recognition or thermal imaging technology, as the department “isn’t interested in using drones to gather specific intelligence on individuals.”
He did not respond to follow-up questions about public vetting of the program.
Law enforcement drones also recently took to the sky for COVID-19. For instance, Carlsbad police drones patrolled for those violating beach and park closures that are no longer in effect. Lawton said the effort, meant to inform where to post closure signs and place officers, didn’t result in arrests or tickets. And speaker-equipped drones warned homeless encampments in Chula Vista about COVID-19.
Nationally, it appears uncommon for police drones to monitor protests, at least judging by police policies and news articles. So said Dan Gettinger, founder and co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York.
But, he added, law enforcement agencies can fly over protests under the banner of crowd control policies, escaping his efforts to track drone uses.
“Applications are evolving over time,” he said.