Chula Vista Police and Fire Department Considering Use of Small Drones for Missions

The Chula Vista Police and Fire Departments are planning to use small drones with video capability by early summer.

“Our goal is to launch by July this year,” said Police Captain Vern Sallee, head of the Chula Vista Police Support Operations Division.

The drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), would be useful in finding missing elderly and children, as well as for gathering information on traffic accidents, fires and other crime scenes, according to a statement from Pat Aguilar, Chula Vista City Councilmember.

Sallee said the department is aiming to buy at least two drones, either commercial or industrial grade.

The commercial version would possibly be the Phantom 4 PRO, and the industrial version would be a custom-made drone from ActionDroneUSA, a Chula Vista UAV manufacturing company.

ActionDrone Correspondent Dhore Anunciado said the company looks at the standard operating procedure of their clients, and then tailors a drone to that specific use.

Anunciado's brother, Mel Anunciado, the education program developer for ActionDrone, said small drones can be useful for searching for a suspect in active shooter situations, if the police and fire department choose to go that route. Multiple small drones could be sent out in a search unit, and small drones can go up to 100 mph. 

Sallee said UAVs can be useful in finding people in difficult ground terrain, tracking suspects on foot, helping to document crime scenes, and finding evidence discarded by suspects when fleeing a scene.

The drones can also be equipped with infrared cameras to help track heat signatures of suspects fleeing or hiding at night.

“We would only use [UAVs] in emergency circumstances,” said Sallee. “Our intent is not to search backyards, but to search for the suspect.”

The draft police policy states the drones will not be used for random surveillance and will not be flown over populated areas without approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, according to the Chula Vista Police Department.

In instances where the drone does fly above populated areas, safety measures always require the pilot has an observer, said Sallee.

While the pilot is focused on flying the UAV, the observer would warn if there are any dangers on the ground.

Regarding the potential for misusing drones for surveillance, Sallee said the pilot log records are subject to public scrutiny, and any kind of misuse will be disciplined. He also said the drones could be marked or painted certain colors so the public can easily recognize police equipment from a consumer drone.

While drone video footage is recorded in real-time, it would be encrypted so potential hackers would not be able to see the stream or take control of the drone.

Sallee said footage acquired during drone use would not be available for public viewing because it could be misused, for instance, with robbers wanting to see what nice things they can steal.

Video would be destroyed after 90 days if not used for investigations, according to the policy draft.

“One thing that I want to mention is we’ve worked with the fire department for more than a year, and they have a qualified pilot,” said Sallee. “They can use it as well in their line of work. The benefits of the program in terms of public and officer safety are very, very important, and they are multipliers to police and fire department in our ability to give enhanced services at a minimal cost.”

Chula Vista resident Roanne Domingo said she still thinks the footage should still be made available to the public because at least they would know when they are being watched. She said she is suspicious of police motives.

“It's good since they can get a better look at things going on, especially since people think this is a nicer area and crimes are starting to rise in this area," said Domingo. "I have kids who play in these parks and in front of our house. Then again, I don’t like knowing they’ve got eyes on us all the time. I’m iffy with police and what their intentions really are.”

Police will still require search warrants whenever they use drones and there is an expectation of privacy, according to the Chula Vista Police Department FAQ sheet.

The Chula Vista City Council said it welcomes public input. Responses can be made by emailing UASTeam@chulavistapd.org.

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