4 New Drones Aid Chula Vista Police in Investigations

As regulations are expanded, the idea of a police dispatcher sending out drones to a crime scene before an officer arrives could become a reality in the near future

The Chula Vista Police Department (CVPD) has started using drones to help with investigations and provide better situational awareness for officers responding to calls.

CVPD began developing its drone program three years ago and has been slowly rolling it out.

A drone was first used in fall of 2017 to survey a canyon for a missing man and has since been used for conducting search warrants and locating wanted suspects.

"The drone can go places that a helicopter has more difficulty getting into. It's less disruptive in many cases to the public because it's quieter," said CVPD Captain Vern Sallee.

Sallee said the perspective a drone can provide helps officers make more efficient decisions.

"For instance, suspect direction of travel, hazards in the area, what officers are closest or the best way to get to where a suspect or problem may be," Sallee said. "This helps give us best outcomes. We want the most information: if the suspect is armed or is not armed, or if the suspect is a threat, perhaps approaching a school, what it looks like so our officers can make the best case decisions in any given situation."

CVPD has sent up its drones only a few times in the last several months, respectful of privacy concerns, and giving the public a chance to get used to seeing the remote-controlled aircraft overhead.

"We've been very cautious because we really want to be open and transparent with the public because we do realize there are privacy concerns with the public about the use of police drones," Sallee said. "We don't use drones for general patrol. We don't look into people's yards with it, things like that. We use it on specific tactical cases such as search warrants."

CVPD held public forums, met with representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and also formed a committee to research best practices and policies for drone use around the country.

"We do understand the public may not understand why we will be using a drone in their area, what we'll be looking at," Sallee added. "And we want to be very upfront and transparent about that. And more importantly, we wanted public input and we also wanted to gauge public acceptance."

The department currently owns four drones. A newly acquired thermal imaging camera able to see at night can be attached to one of the models and is also available to help with fires.

CVPD Officer Michael St. Clair, a drone pilot, said deploying a drone, which has a battery life of about 25 minutes and can travel up to 35 miles an hour, is much cheaper than flying a helicopter.

"These are just batteries that we recharge," said St. Clair. "There's almost no continued cost for them once you have the initial purchase."

CVPD does not own a helicopter but can request air assistance through a mutual aid agreement with the San Diego Police Department and San Diego County Sheriff's Department.

St. Clair said the drones, which can take hundreds of pictures in minutes, will also be helpful in reconstructing traffic collisions, swat call-outs and documenting evidence.

"Sometimes it takes four hours to document a traffic collision that's a fatal, and this can do it in a matter of 10 minutes," said St. Clair.

The use of drones is limited under current regulations. However, changes are underway. President Donald Trump has fast-tracked the creation of new operational concepts and policies covering the expanded use of drones.

The Federal Aviation Administration is rewriting current drone laws, and new guidelines could be released this summer.

"One of the things we're testing out right now is creating a 3-D environment, a virtual reality environment so that when a juror is looking at a crime scene, instead of looking at pictures, they can put on (virtual reality) goggles and walk through the entire crime scene," St. Clair said. "It would just provide more information to the jury to make a better informed decision."

As regulations are expanded, the idea of a police dispatcher sending out drones to a crime scene before an officer arrives could become a reality in the near future.

"By the time we get there after 5 or 10 minutes, sometimes the suspect is already gone," said St. Clair. "The drone might be able to get there before an officer gets there, and provide real-time information: the suspect just got in their vehicle, they're driving away."

The department's drones and cameras cost about $25,000. They were funded primarily by the Chula Vista Police Foundation, which is holding its yearly fundraiser Saturday, June 30.

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