The drones U.S. police are using are much more like the consumer-grade type you might find at a big box store, than multi-million dollar, higher-tech military drones. Generally, police drones don’t carry weapons and are used primarily for video surveillance. It is possible for small drones to deliver chemical irritants like tear gas, however, a technology that police in Israel have used against Palestinians.
While drones don’t have the same capabilities as officers, the Chula Vista department and drone manufacturers say that their use can function as a de-escalation tactic. In one frequently cited example, 911 received a call about a man waving around a gun in front of a taco restaurant. A Chula Vista police drone arrived in 84 seconds, and before officers could make it onto the scene, the operator used the drone video to determine that the “gun” was actually a cigarette lighter.
“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,” a department official told the San Diego Union Tribune in 2020. Supporters also note that faster drone response times can aid investigations, and see the technology as a “force multiplier” that can help police address staffing shortages, and respond to potentially dangerous scenes without putting a human officer in danger.
Civil liberty advocates are less enchanted. In a report published on Thursday, American Civil Liberties Union Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley worries that these kinds of drone programs may normalize usage and “usher in an era of pervasive, suspicionless, mass aerial surveillance.” He notes far more invasive turns that police drone usage could take, including warrantless surveillance of specific people, crime “hotspots” or even whole neighborhoods or cities. Stanley wonders if drone usage won’t just become “another weapon in the war on drugs, in over-policing, in the targeting of Black, low-income and other vulnerable communities, and otherwise amplify the problems with the deeply broken U.S. criminal legal system.”
Just what kind of transparency the public has into the kind of data these police efforts collect is still playing out. This week, a California appeals court agreed to hear a case brought by a journalist who filed a public records request for footage from the Chula Vista drone program. Art Castañares, publisher of La Prensa San Diego, asked for a month of video to “independently verify police officials’ assurances that they do not use the drones to spy on residents.”
The department denied his request, arguing that the video is “investigative” in nature and not subject to public records laws. The department does make drone flight path data public, along with the reason for the 911 calls that initiated the investigation. Over the past week, flights have been launched for reported robberies, domestic disturbances and assault, but also public indecency, welfare checks and “suspicious circumstances.”