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Chula Vista PD Approved For Broader Use Of Drones In Law Enforcement

A Chula Vista Police Department drone is pictured in the photo above, July 8, 2020.
Shalina Chatlani
A Chula Vista Police Department drone is pictured in the photo above, July 8, 2020.

The Chula Vista Police Department has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration to broaden its use of drones.

Some academics are skeptical of such technologies in law enforcement, but officers say they release drone data to be as transparent as possible.

Chula Vista PD Approved For Broader Use Of Drones In Law Enforcement
Listen to this story by Shalina Chatlani.

Lt. Jim Horst, Chula Vista Police Department drone supervisor, said the station has been using nearly two dozen autonomous small drones and some larger ones to assist law enforcement.


"Pretty much anything people call the police department to report, he said. "So it could be a suspicious person, anything we want to use the drone to get more visual intelligence on."

The San Diego region is one of nine jurisdictions approved by the FAA to try out drones in different industries via a pilot program. That’s how CVPD has been testing out these machines.

It received a two-year waiver from the FAA on June 28 to use the drones outside that program and with a loosening of certain restrictions.

Chula Vista PD Approved For Broader Use Of Drones In Law Enforcement

Now the department can fly the small drones outside their line of sight, which increases the range at which they can be used. It's the first law enforcement agency in the nation to receive such approval.

And the department has already been using larger drones, which are allowed to be flown several miles away outside the line of sight.


The department sees drones as a de-escalation tool, Horst said.

"By having the drones, officers can have more information and they can have visual information prior to getting there on how to handle that call," he said.

The department has an online tracker program that shows how many drone flights resulted in fewer police patrol squads being sent out.

Still, some academics say drones can be seen as a form of surveillance. And that having a video doesn’t necessarily mean that officers are making neutral decisions.

"Say you’re getting a call from someone acting erratic … like what would a drone be able to see that would discern a person screaming and waving their hands around as someone who needs intervention by the police, versus a mental health team?" said Lilly Irani, a professor of communication and technology at UC San Diego.

Even if officers are using video to see whether a situation is dangerous, human bias doesn’t just go away, she said.

"OK, so what type of visual symbols are you going to look for to discern the difference between dangerous and nondangerous?" Irani said.

The drones are intended to reduce the likelihood of unnecessary escalation, Horst said. But even with tech, he said, there is always human error.

"I don’t think there’s a case in which you can say that we shouldn’t have responded with a drone and still sent officers because the drone just gave us more info," Horst said. "The officers there are still going to be held accountable based on the decision they make."

Still, Irani suggests that as drone usage increases, the community that is being videotaped be involved as much as possible in the decision making.

More importantly, she said, there should be a community oversight committee to observe how law enforcement is using certain technologies. She's currently advocating for a similar protocol in San Diego for street lights that have cameras and can be used in criminal cases.

There were community meetings on the drones, Horst said, and data on where the drones go is online.

The video itself is kept secure and treated as evidence much like body camera video, he said. It can be requested by the public and will go through the courts if necessary.

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