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It seems that a robo-cop universe is more imminent than we all suspected. Police in the (relatively) small California town of Chula Vista are dispatching drones to crime scenes before officers are able to get there.
Case in Point
Recently, all of the Chula Vista Police Department officers were out on high-profile cases when a call came in about a road rage incident.
Instead of diverting some of the officers, the department used its newest toy, a drone. The drone was able to follow the woman who was chasing a man on a motorcycle and consequently ramming her car into him.
All of the video was then live-streamed to officers smartphones so they knew exactly what they were getting into when they got on scene.
Why This Program is Unique
Police departments across the country already use drones in investigations. However, this is the first time drones are being used ahead of officers. It's part of a Federal Aviation Administration pilot program.
This program started six months ago, and already the drones have helped Chula Vista police make over 50 arrests.
Since the program is relatively new, drones are only deployed within a one-mile radius of the police station. In a 52-square-mile town, this range is limiting.
Chula Vista Police Chief Roxana Kennedy isn't complaining, though.
"The drone has effectively contributed to several arrests where it arrived on scene first and vectored officers to the suspect," she said.
So, How Difficult Is This Police Program?
The FAA's Integration Pilot Program is the reason the Chula Vista police are allowed to use drones at all.
Federal law dictates that drones must be flown in the operator's line of sight. Obviously, if a drone is flying ahead of police officers up to a mile away, this line of sight is shot.
The integration program, the same thing that allows Amazon to send packages to your home via drone, is changing all this.
The California cities of Chula Vista and San Diego are the ones focusing on using drones for public safety, instead of getting insanely-fast toilet paper delivered to your porch.
The drones take 2 police officers to operate. One officer acts as the pilot and is stationed on the roof of the police station. The pilot sets the geo-fence, telling the drone where it should go.
The other officer, one sitting down in the basement, tells the drone when to launch.
The drone's camera is the best asset to officers currently. A drone camera can see a license plate from up to 2-miles away and it can ensure a distraught 911-caller's information is accurate.
"I think that this is so vital for us in law enforcement right now as we're under tremendous scrutiny," the police chief said.
First Amendment Questions
Chula Vista residents have been vocal about their concerns with the new technology.
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One resident, Marie Paniagua, said they are "a little bit of a violation of privacy. Can they look in your window?"
As most photographers know, first amendment law specifies that you can legally take photographs of anyone in a public space, no questions asked.
But the laws get murky when you're, say on a sidewalk outside of someone's home. If the person expects a reasonable level of privacy in the area where they are, then it's illegal for you to photograph them.
So, if these drones are photographing into people's homes then it could be a violation of their privacy.
The police chief argues this is not how the drones are used.
"We have worked really hard to make sure that we have policies in place that address those issues," she said. "We don't do random patrol with our drones. They're not utilized that way at all. They are not for surveillance."
Other residents are curious about whether the footage is available to the public.
The Future of the Program
Chula Vista has the lowest staffed police department in San Diego County. The goal that the police chief has for the program is to get a drone to a scene of a crime within 2 minutes of a call for it.
And the police department will continue to work closely with the FAA.
"We're getting feedback from them (the FAA) as to what they need to have confidence in our systems," said Captain Vern Sallee.
Last month, the FAA granted Chula Vista the first "line of sight" exception for emergency response.
Chula Vista plans to use it.