In Some Cities, The First Cop on The Scene is a Drone


In the posh seaside town of Santa Monica, California, when someone dials 911 for police, a drone is instantly launched from the station's roof.

Officers also respond. However, most of the time, the drone arrives first, flying directly to a set of GPS coordinates the controller entered. Sometimes, it arrives in less than 30 seconds.

“It’s a fundamental change in the way that we can bring policing services to our city,” said Peter Lashley, a veteran of the force who often pilots the drone from a screen-filled command center inside the police station.

The drone's robust camera can zoom in close enough to read a license plate or provide a view of several square blocks. The drone camera was the lone eyewitness to a horrific heist in Santa Monica, and one of the two culprits was caught and found guilty. It gave responding cops crucial information—that what appeared to be guns in victims' hands weren't firearms—on at least three occasions. Officers could respond far less forcefully thanks to that information.

Police believe drones could have a significant impact by diffusing potentially violent situations when law enforcement agencies are experiencing a crisis of legitimacy because of several high-profile murder cases involving cops. Their spread is also expected to ignite concerns about privacy hazards and a fresh discussion about the relationship between the public and their government.

The government is eager to stress out that drones are not used for surveillance but for incident response.

Drone use by the police has been experimented with for a while, although it is uncommon and relatively new. The first-responder program began in 2018 in Chula Vista, close to San Diego, where officials received a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly outside a pilot's line of sight. Drones may now cover the entire city. The initiative has swiftly spread throughout Los Angeles County over the past two years; besides Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Redondo Beach have also adopted it, along with about a dozen other departments nationally. The Los Angeles Police Department, which runs a fleet of helicopters, does not deploy drones for 911 calls, despite claims from department officials that they do so in tactical scenarios occasionally.

As technology advances, so does the usage of tactical drones. The Lemur, a reinforced quadcopter that can fly into buildings, break glass, push open doors, and allow authorities to speak to hostage-taking suspects who are blocked, was recently shown to reporters. Although Santa Monica hasn't yet adopted one, many other departments have.

The catastrophic shooting in his hometown of Las Vegas inspired Blake Resnick, then 17 years old, to start BRINC, which is the company that produces the Lemur.

“What we found in tactical situations is if we can communicate with a person, we can de-escalate it much quicker and bring the situation to resolution,” said Don Lemond, a retired Chula Vista police officer who now works for BRINC. “But we also deployed it during the Surfside condo collapse in Florida to look for people that were trapped inside the building.”

As a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, Jay Stanley has studied government drone use. He claims his group is not against using drones to respond to emergencies or rescue hostages.

"Our stance is that it's legitimate for police departments to use drones for raids, accidents, and crime scenes, as well as to find a lost child in the woods," he said.

However, he noted police drone use raises "all the same questions body cameras raise." What occurs to the video? Who is permitted access? Will the cops broadcast the video when it bolsters their image of heroism and bury it when it doesn't?

“It’s an incredible resource that’s going to potentially reduce risk and liability and ultimately make policing safer for not only the community but also for the officer,” he said. “It’s amazing what you can see from the air,” Redondo Police Capt. Stephen Sprengel said.



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