San Diego Sheriff’s Department considering drones

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department is exploring whether to purchase camera-toting drones for locating missing people, aiding SWAT teams and assessing raging wildfires.

Lt. Jason Vickery said the Sheriff’s Department is in the early stages of getting feedback on drones, and if the agency ultimately embraces them, drones would be used in all contract areas. In North County, that includes Encinitas, Del Mar, Solana Beach, Rancho Santa Fe and more.

"They would be used in emergencies and life-saving circumstances," Vickery said.

Privacy advocates throughout the nation have argued that police drones could enable the government to illegally track people. But Vickery stressed that drones wouldn’t be deployed for mass surveillance.

Instead, he said they could save lives in a number of situations, from inspecting suspicious packages to helping a SWAT team decide how to proceed if armed suspects barricade themselves in a home.

"They can get very close to windows or entryways," said Vickery of drones, which he preferred to call unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

This ability to fly in tight quarters could also benefit search-and-rescue missions, when tree canopies or buildings hinder the views of Sheriff’s helicopter pilots. UAVs can be outfitted with infrared technology that illuminates a hiker lost in the dark, for example.

If bad weather grounds Sheriff’s Department helicopters, drones could potentially take to the sky as an alternative, Vickery stated. But, he added, drones would only supplement helicopters, not replace them. That’s primarily because a helicopter can arrive on scene within 2 to 15 minutes, while it could take a drone an hour.

A drone pilot and spotter would operate a UAV, and it would typically only launch from command posts set up at an incident, Vickery said.

He’s part of a six-member Sheriff’s working group that began researching law enforcement drones in July. The panel is looking at drone policies in Ventura as a potential model. It also visited Alameda County, Calif. to get a sense of how police drones are used.

Matt Cagle is the technology and civil liberties policy attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. He said the San Diego Sheriff’s Department should restrict any potential drone program to prevent routine civilian surveillance.

"Whenever surveillance technology is used, there needs to be strict limits on the circumstances that it can be utilized," Cagle said. He added safeguards should ensure drone footage is only collected "where and when necessary," as well as punish abuse of drone data.

Without controls, drones could be deployed to monitor protestors, for instance, Cagle said.

But Vickery said that’s not in the cards. He stated drone footage would only be stored for evidence purposes, and UAVs wouldn’t just "sweep across the beat" or randomly take video of homes.

"Any data we collect, if it’s not of evidentiary value, would be destroyed," he said.

Sheriff’s citizen advisory groups across the county will soon weigh in on drones, according to Vickery. From there, various Sheriff’s Department committees and captains of Sheriff’s substations will provide feedback. Ultimately, Sheriff Bill Gore will decide whether to implement a pilot program with a small number of drones, and if he deems that successful, drones would go countywide.

Vickery said there isn’t a timeline in place for when Gore will make those calls, but potentially in the next few months.

Cagle said it’s important that the Sheriff’s Department also hold public meetings on the matter.

"I think the real issue here is whether or not San Diego residents even want these drones," he said. "There should be a public debate."

Encinitas Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer declined an interview request for the article, saying she doesn’t have enough of an understanding of the issue at this time to have an opinion.

"I will just say this is one of the many complex issues we have to deal with, seeking the best balance between immediate public safety needs and privacy considerations," Shaffer stated in an email.

Launching a Sheriff’s drone program would require Federal Aviation Administration approval. Sheriff’s drones would be bound by many of the same FAA rules for hobbyist operators, including that UAVs are prohibited from flying higher than 400 feet.

Vickery said the Oceanside Police Department is also researching drones, but a San Diego law enforcement agency has yet to buy and deploy UAVs, he stated.

Public agencies across the nation have paid anywhere from $2,000 to $85,000 per drone, Vickery said.

Sophisticated models have software that snaps photos of landscapes at regular intervals, producing a composite image of the entire area covered.

At this point, the Sheriff’s Department hasn’t decided which model it could buy or how many, according to Vickery.

For some, the word "drone" conjures up images of large aircraft capable of missile strikes. In response, Vickery said the Sheriff’s drones would be similar to small hobbyist drones, and only able to fly for 30 minutes to an hour at a time.

"You wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the ones we’re looking at and the hobbyist ones," he said.

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