Local Police Departments Won't Shed Much Light on How They're Using Drones
Six police agencies in the county operate drones, but only two would provide internal logs describing drone activity.
Search-and-rescue missions. Following a fleeing suspect. Monitoring a protest.
These are some of the ways police drones have been deployed in San Diego County, according to flight records.
Camera-equipped drones in law enforcement quickly went from novelty to norm, starting with the San Diego Sheriff’s Department quietly launching a drone program in 2016.
Now, six police agencies in the county fly drones. So how are they being used?
Only two agencies — the Carlsbad Police Department and Escondido Police Department — provided internal logs describing their drone activity. Requests for footage were largely denied by the agencies.
Among the Carlsbad flight records: a fire investigation, homicide documentation and a search for a missing person who was reportedly nude and trespassed at Legoland just after midnight. The log indicates the person wasn’t found.
In June 2018, the department’s drone flew over a Families Belong Together rally at Cannon Park during a weekend of national protests over the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children and parents at the border.
The drone was ordered to “enhance situational awareness, monitor crowds and locate potential instigators in the crowd,” states the flight log.
Carlsbad Police Sgt. Shaun Lawton said officers didn’t track anyone or go into the protest with a list of potential instigators. Rather, the department wanted an aerial view in case the event turned south. Ultimately, it unfolded peacefully.
“I can’t say us specifically, but law enforcement has dealt with similar types of protests we’re familiar with where instigators came specifically to incite the crowd,” he said.
Its drone captured video of the protest, which was stored under a Carlsbad policy that says drone recordings “not otherwise needed for official reasons” should be retained at least one year.
The American Civil Liberties Union advocates keeping police drone footage no more than 24 hours, except in limited circumstances, to guard against the potential for unlawful spying.
The Carlsbad and Chula Vista police departments provided select drone video in response to record requests, including an aerial view of a Carlsbad street fair. Other agencies declined.
In Carlsbad, the Families Belong Together rally has since drawn citywide attention — but not because of the drone. Last month, the Carlsbad City Council made it easier to get a permit for large demonstrations after organizers of the Families Belong Together rally said they were threatened with fines for protesting.
“The drone contributed to an overbearing police response,” said Cindy Millican, who protested at the event and is part of the North County Civil Liberties Coalition.
A month earlier, the Carlsbad department planned to send a drone to a protest related to a City Council meeting. But the rally was canceled, according to records.
Lawton said such uses fall within the department’s policy, which forbids random surveillance.
Police drones at protests are a manifestation of fears voiced by privacy groups several years ago at the dawn of law enforcement drones.
“We all have a right to assemble, a right to protest, a right to speech, and the government should not be keeping tabs on how people are speaking out,” said Dave Maass, a researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who reviewed flight logs at Voice of San Diego’s request.
He criticized the Carlsbad police’s drone monitoring a protest, but said at least the agency and the Escondido Police Department handed over drone records.
“That’s one of the first major steps in transparency when it comes to drone programs,” he said. “I think agencies that are more secretive should really think again.”
Maass fears police might pivot to more intrusive uses as technology evolves, including facial-recognition capabilities that could potentially identify protestors and track their movements.
Near Carlsbad, drones have been embraced by the Escondido Police Department, which since 2017 has logged 162 missions, ranging from searching for an arson suspect to recovering stolen cars to looking for a stolen donkey, according to records.
The San Diego Sheriff’s Department redacted mission synopses from internal flight logs.
“Records of a law enforcement investigation, or any investigatory or security files compiled by a law enforcement agency are exempt from disclosure,” the Sheriff’s Department said in an email.
Monthly Sheriff’s updates to the Federal Aviation Administration show which Sheriff’s units received drone support, and offer an occasional peek into missions.
Those included documentation of fatal traffic collisions, search-and-rescue missions and police-involved shootings.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Rob Samuels said the department has demonstrated the technology to the public and elected officials.
“That invitation is open to the public, members of the media,” he said. “There’s nothing to hide, nothing nefarious about how these are being used.”
Dianne Jacob, chairwoman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, which controls the Sheriff’s Department budget, declined to comment. As did Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall.
In response to requests for internal flight records, the Oceanside Police Department provided reports to the FAA without mission synopses, while the San Diego Police Department declined to turn over internal logs, citing records that could be used for criminal investigation.
The Chula Vista Police Department also withheld internal flight records, but its website documents flight paths, accompanied by short mission descriptions.
Attorney Steven Miller, who specializes in drone matters at the Northern California law firm Hanson Bridgett, said it appears courts haven’t weighed in on which police drone records are public and which aren’t — part of larger legal uncertainty around the technology.
“My guess is courts would try and apply existing reasoning to drones,” he said.
Some states and local governments have passed laws restricting law enforcement drones.
California is not one of the states that requires police to obtain warrants for surveillance by drone. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed 2014 legislation that imposed that requirement.
Across the United States, the number of public safety agencies using drones more than doubled from 2016 to 2018, according to the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York.
The Chula Vista Police Department is at the forefront of what’s called drones as first responders. Its drones give a real-time view of a scene before emergency personnel arrive.
In March, the FAA under a first-of-its-kind designation granted the department permission to fly drones beyond officers’ visual line of sight. The drones can go within a three-mile radius of police headquarters, as well as another launch site at Paradise Valley Hospital.
The agency has publicly shared select drone videos, including a 911 call stemming from a man waving a gun-shaped object outside a restaurant. A drone got there before officers. Streaming video showed the object was actually a lighter.
“It really is a de-escalation tool, because when we can get the right information to our officers early, they use better tools and tactics,” said Cpt. Vern Sallee.
As of August, the cost of the two-year-old program stood at $147,850, more than half of which was for overtime pay.
Sallee said funding wasn’t initially allocated to its drone effort so overtime paid for extensive pilot training. Money came from the Police Department not being at “fully authorized staffing,” he said.
“Early on in the program, we were literally blazing new trails, with quite a bit of initial training and continuously refining our program, thus it was more labor intensive to get up and running,” Salle said, adding drones are far less expensive than police helicopters.
Chula Vista retains drone video for at least a year — and longer if categorized as evidence in a crime or investigation.
Of nearly 1,200 drone flights, the department reported drones were used most often – 34.6 percent of the time – for disturbance calls, according to Chula Vista’s flight path website.
Maass cheered Chula Vista posting flight information online, but said online mission synopses should be more descriptive.
Internal flight logs would shed even more light. But those are rarely forthcoming, said Dan Gettinger, founder and co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone.
“It’s pretty widely accepted among police agencies that there needs to be engagement with the public on drones. But what’s shared with the public varies,” said Gettinger.