California Police Deploy Drones To Assist During Coronavirus Shutdown

Torrance Police Department UAS pilot officer Matthew Slawson flies one of the department drones on Thursday, October 11, 2018. Torrance PD, like law enforcement agencies in other cities around Southern California, is increasingly turning to drones to aid officers in emergency situations (Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer)

The novel coronavirus pandemic is pushing a California police department to take a concerning approach to protecting and serving: the use of drones.

According to the Washington Examiner, the Chula Vista Police Department recently doubled its fleet of aerial drones with the purchase of two machines that would be outfitted with cameras.

“We have not traditionally mounted speakers to our drones, but … if we need to cover a large area to get an announcement out, or if there were a crowd somewhere that we needed to disperse, we could do it without getting police officers involved,” said Capt. Vern Sallee.

Sallee explained to the Examiner that the CVPD’s drones can’t be outfitted with both a night vision camera and speakers at the same time. Sallee also clarified that the drones will not be used for routine patrolling of the community, but rather “in response to 911 calls for assistance as per our policy and FAA authorization.”

Sallee says his department hopes to use the drones in different ways to make Chula Vista safer, such as sending them to concentrations of homeless people who may not get information about coronavirus safety measures any other way.

“The department is considering one strategy to use drone-mounted speakers to communicate and reach vulnerable populations in inaccessible areas of the city, like large urban canyons with homeless encampments,” the department said in a press release, according to the Examiner. “Unsheltered persons are particularly vulnerable to the current pandemic, and their safety and welfare is important to stopping the spread of the disease.”

Sallee said CVPD has not used any of the speaker-equipped drones other than in training. In Chula Vista, he added, police are merely taking note of gatherings of more than 10 people, businesses that are open that shouldn’t be, or people in parks that are closed. Staff have also been directed only to advise people on social distancing guidelines and request their voluntary compliance with the stay-at-home order.

“Started in 2016, the Chula Vista Police Department’s drone program has strong policies and procedures to protect the privacy and civil rights of the community, while providing critical real-time information to first responders,” the press release continued. “The department has not changed how it has used drones during this emergency, but staff are considering how drones may improve communication with the public under certain limited circumstances.”

The Examiner points to a handful of precedents, however, that are not quite as benign as CVPD’s use of drones.

At the peak of China’s coronavirus outbreak, the Examiner notes, authorities used talking drones to compel citizens in certain areas to wear face masks, shouting, “Where is your mask? Wear your mask!”

In Belgium, police use drones to warn citizens about a lockdown that was put in place, reading off medical guidelines to people below and urging citizens to “take care of yourself and others.”

Spencer Gore, chief executive of U.S.-based drone company Impossible Aerospace, told the Examiner he is “working like crazy” to help equip other law enforcement agencies with drones.

“What we saw in China, and what we’re probably going to see around the world, is using drones with cameras and loudspeakers to fly around to see if people are gathering where they shouldn’t be, and telling them to go home,” Gore said. “It seems a little Orwellian, but this could save lives.”

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