San Diego County Sheriff's Department is Extremely Pleased with its Drones

Law enforcement agencies are getting hooked on drones more and more, these days. The San Diego County Sherrif's Department is definitely part of that club, having just expanded its drone fleet.

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Drones are like any other machine, they’re either a benefit or a hazard. Well, admittedly, it may not be that clear-cut when it comes to drone use in law enforcement, as there’s a wide variety of perspectives. Just recently, a civilian oversight panel signed off on allowing the LAPD a yearlong period of implementing unmanned aerial vehicles into their line of business. Not everyone was pleased. It threatens the paramount right to privacy, some argue. It can help save lives, the other side claims. It’ll inevitably lead to weaponized drones, someone else suggests. While we’re not sure what the future holds, we just had a good look at drone use in law enforcement in the present. And most recently, it seems the San Diego Sheriff’s Department is adamant that the overall benefit of UAVs in their line of work is not to be dismissed, and should be here to stay.

Reportedly, two bodies were found in Descanso, San Diego last week, in what appeared to be a murder-suicide. In what seems to have become an instinctual reaction to scenarios like these, the deputies in charge deployed a drone to collect footage and photographs—imperative data, collected without any tampering. This seems to have become standard procedure for homicide Lt. Rich Williams and his peers. “I can’t think of one recently where we didn’t have a drone,” he said

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the local County Sheriff’s Department used drones over 70 times, many of which were homicide cases, SWAT situations, and search-and-rescue operations. Here’s a graph, courtesy of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, which may provide a clearer sense of the use-cases. 

San Diego County Sherrif's Department

An infographic, charting the various uses of drones in SD county.

Lt. Rich Williams, like most in law enforcement who see the advantages of UAVs, is thoroughly impressed by just how beneficial this new tool can be to his job. “This technology is fantastic, and it’s extremely useful. It’s the quickest, easiest and most effective way to get video and still images without having to use a helicopter, which obviously can’t get into places a drone can,” he said. Additionally, a helicopter may be far too loud when attempting to get a closer look at a hostage situation or something of the sort, whereas a drone may be more subtle. 

The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that it was last October that the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department launched a drone program—the first of its kind—which set them back a whopping $125,000. Of course, after a year of nothing but successful implementation, the budget for the following year increased to $165,000, a clear sign of confidence and doubling-down. “I think it’s proven to be such a valuable asset. More valuable than we thought it would be,” said sheriff’s Lt. Jason Vickery, who oversees the drone program in question.

Naturally, a substantial portion of the citizenry isn’t pleased by this continuously emboldened relationship between police and flying robots. There are deep-rooted fears, understandable concerns, that this may be a well-intentioned phase, but would inevitably lead to a loss of control, resulting in weaponized drones or aerially patrolling neighborhoods. Think dystopia, 1984. Lt. Vickery, however, claims that so far, he’s had no complaints and that the department’s drone policy prohibits their use for mass or random surveillance, as well as attaching weapons to them. "That I can recall, I have not had any negative feedback,” he said. Naturally, amidst fears of not knowing who's piloting that drone above, companies like DJI are developing remote-tracking and identification tools. The goal seems to be accountability and assuaging consumers. Just recently, there was a collision between an airplane and a drone in Québec, and not a single suspect was detained.

As you can see from the chart, the most common uses for drones in law enforcement in San Diego have been homicide and SWAT incidents. It’s a no-brainer to think that drones would be massively helpful in scenarios like these, as drones can get a clear bird's-eye view of the situation before manpower on the ground is sent in. The police can gain a massive advantage by communicating with their aerial colleague, as it were, before risking their officers’ lives. “It’s a game changer when it comes to these units,” Lt. Vickery said. “It gives us a perspective that we wouldn’t get from anywhere else.”

Reportedly, the Sheriff’s Department has grown its suite of drones from six to 10 drones, with each UAV costing between $500 to $2,000. Additionally, professional training in regards to piloting these UAVs has become a necessity, and there are now 11 deputies in San Diego County who are FAA-certified, with two further pilots in mid-training. That’s a huge increase from last year, where a mere four pilots were licensed to operate these drones. Sheriff’s officials are even planning on getting a water-proof drone for rainy days according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Three of the 10 drones are capable of being fitted with infrared cameras and strobe lights, which would make the UAVs perfectly useful at night. However, this is still an FAA-restricted drone use case for which an exception has to be granted on a case by case basis. “What we’ve learned over the last year is that there’s certain limitations with each (drone),” said Vickery. “We don’t have one that can do it all.” In any case, as we reported last week the Trump administration is currently toying with the idea of expanding drone use, which would include nighttime operations, so these restrictions may soon not be of any concern for law enforcement at all. Even CNN was recently granted a first-of-its-kind waiver, allowing it to fly drones over crowds. The entire landscape is changing, rapidly.

These stories will occur over and over again. Police departments are definitely enthusiastic and relieved at having this new tool at their disposal, and how could they not be? Deploying a drone to know what kind of situation you’ll be sending your peers into is something all of us can understand has its appeal. On the other hand, of course, there’s the paranoia of incremental acclimation, to a world where drones are patrolling neighborhoods, whirring overhead day and night, and robbing new generations of the open skies we grew up under. The middle ground is not yet clear, but we’ll most certainly be forced to confront it sooner, rather than later.