Welcome to Chula Vista, where police drones respond to 911 calls

Welcome to Chula Vista, where police drones respond to 911 calls

Welcome to Chula Vista, where police drones respond to 911 calls

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Chula Vista was the first police department to receive such a waiver. Today, about 225 departments have them, and a dozen of them, including Chula Vista, operate what are called first responder drone programs, where drones are dispatched by pilots, who listen to live 911 calls and often arrive first at the scene of accidents, emergencies and crimes, cameras in tow.


It is widely expected that the FAA will fully legalize BVLOS within the next few years, which would facilitate the initiation of other such programs; the sheriff-elect of Las Vegas, Nevada, has already announced plans to pre-position hundreds of drones throughout the city to quickly respond to crimes and shootings. New technologies such as autonomous flight, where drones can follow pre-programmed routes or respond to commands without the need for human operators, are not far behind.

“It’s escalating quickly,” says Matt Sloane, founder of Atlanta-based Skyfire Consulting, which helps train law enforcement in the use of drones. “Police departments are steadily increasing their budgets for this technology. I think we’ll see a stand-alone deployment in two to three years.

Many say it’s going too fast. The use of drones as surveillance tools and first responders is a fundamental shift in policing that is occurring without a well-informed public debate about privacy regulations, tactics, and the limitations of this technology.

There is also little evidence available on the effectiveness of policing in this way. Of the experts I contacted for this story — including officers from Chula Vista, credited with having the nation’s oldest drone program, as well as vendors and researchers — none could cite a third-party study. showing that drones reduce crime. Nor could anyone provide statistics on the number of additional arrests or convictions resulting from the use of the technology. Generally, the departments argued that when crime goes down, any technology used has played a role. But without specific statistics or analytics to connect, say, drones to improvement, it’s a case of correlation, not causation.

As the technology continues to spread, privacy and civil liberties groups are raising questions about what happens when drones are combined with license plate readers, fixed camera arrays and new real-time command centers that digest and sort video evidence. This digital net could dramatically expand surveillance capabilities and lead to even more police interactions with demographics that have historically suffered from oversurveillance.


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