Welcome to Chula Vista, where police drones respond to 911 calls


Chula Vista was the first police department to be awarded such a waiver. They now have about 225 departments, and dozens of them, including Chula Vista, operate so-called drone-like first responder programs, in which drones are sent by pilots, listen to live 911 calls and often arrive first. Trailer cameras for accidents, emergencies and crime scenes.

The FAA is expected to fully legalize BVLOS within the next few years, making it easier to launch other programs. The sheriff in Las Vegas, Nevada has already announced plans to deploy hundreds of drones citywide to respond to crimes and shootings. New technologies such as autonomous flight, where drones fly pre-planned routes or respond to commands without the need for human operators, are not far off.

“It’s increasing rapidly,” says Matt Sloane, founder of Atlanta-based Skyfire Consulting, which helps train law enforcement agencies in the use of drones. “Police departments are constantly increasing their budgets for this technology. I think in two to three years we will see it become independent.

Many would argue that it is happening too fast. The use of drones as surveillance tools and first responders is a fundamental shift in policing, without an informed public debate around privacy regulations, strategies, and the limitations of this technology.

There is also little evidence of the effectiveness of this fashion policing. Among the experts I interviewed for this story — including officers in Chula Vista, known for having the nation’s longest-running drone program, as well as vendors and researchers — said third-party research can’t show that drones reduce crime. Also, no one could provide statistics on how many additional arrests or convictions were made using the technology. Traditionally, departments have argued that any technology is used to reduce crime. But without specific statistics or analysis to link, to the upgrade drones, it’s a matter of correlation, not causation.

As the technology continues to expand, privacy and civil liberties groups are raising questions about what will happen when drones are combined with license plate readers, networks of fixed cameras and new real-time command centers. This digital dragnet could dramatically expand surveillance capabilities and result in police contact with demographics that have historically experienced over-policing.


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