Though some communities have strongly objected to police drones, that hasn’t been the case in Pittsburg, Calif., where drones are only used with approval in specific incidents rather than for routine surveillance.
(TNS) — When a man suspected of firing shots at his family barricaded himself inside his Pittsburg home last Friday, police sent up their other set of eyes — a drone with high-definition video — to survey the situation, keeping officers out of harm’s way and gathering information to help them plan their moves.
The drama ended when the suspect, identified as 58-year-old Ronald Ball, walked out of the School Street home after five hours and was taken into custody. No one was injured, and police attribute that in part to remote-controlled drones.
“We were able to use the drones to determine where the doors and windows were in the backyard to relay that to the SWAT team so they could make decisions about how they were going to do the SWAT operation,” said Detective Nicholas Law, who heads the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle program.
“The SWAT came out, and the drone was utilized with (setting up) the perimeter,” added Detective Zachary Haller, one of Pittsburg Police Department’s four certified drone operators who was with the SWAT unit during the recent standoff. “It was definitely helpful. The drones can be used faster than a helicopter.”
Law said that using the drone, the officers were able to make sure he was not trying to sneak out of the house.
“It allows a different perspective on the incident,” he added. “… We were recording everything that was going on from the sky. Body cameras are from one perspective; with this, you can get more of a broad perspective. The advantage of them is, in many instances, it serves the same role as a law enforcement helicopter but at a fraction of the (nearly $3 million) cost.”
Capt. Steve Albanese said the cost of the Pittsburg drone program is about $50,000, which “has easily been recuperated in cost savings related to staff time and/or investigative time.”
Pittsburg’s is just one of a growing number of police departments in the Bay Area using drone technology. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office was the forerunner, obtaining the devices in 2014. But some privacy experts, the ACLU and others are wary about the potential for routine aerial surveillance and privacy invasion.
“Drones give law enforcement the power to more easily monitor the private lives of community members,” said Matt Cagle, technology and civil liberties attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. “Drones are easily equipped with high-powered surveillance cameras, so it’s really important to have strict public oversight.”
The ACLU has said such technology should be subject to a community’s approval, with residents made aware of how they will be used.
“Drones should not take to the skies unless the people, represented by their elected leaders, approve them,” Cagle said. “Drones should never be used to (monitor) First Amendment-protected activities like a political protest or a house of worship, and wherever possible, the police should seek a warrant first and have a specific purpose for deploying the drone.”
Cagle said the Federal Aviation Administration imposes rules, but it doesn’t spell out everything.
“The common pattern is we see they (drones) are adopted on the premise for only use in emergency, but slowly but surely, the police start to use drones for general law enforcement,” he said.
A half-dozen Bay Area communities already have adopted ordinances to regulate the use of such technology, and annual re-evalutaions are encouraged, Cagle said.
“There should be transparency as to how often it is being used too,” he said.
In May, Oakland adopted the nation’s strongest ordinance regulating a city’s use of surveillance devices, including drones. The ordinance requires any such technology be subject to the Privacy Advisory Commission and City Council’s review and approval. The cities of Davis and Berkeley have adopted similar ordinances, giving local communities more say in police surveillance that is secretive.
Though some communities have strongly objected to police drones, that hasn’t been the case in Pittsburg, where drones are only used with approval in specific incidents rather than for routine surveillance, Law said.
“We haven’t gotten that pushback because we’ve been transparent,” Law said. “We aren’t trying to watch people. It’s not for covert reasons. It’s to protect people.”
Haller added that police, per FAA rules, cannot fly the devices higher than 400 feet or over people unless the device is equipped with a parachute and a waiver has been obtained.
“We are not just flying over neighborhoods,” he said.
Others using the technology include the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office and the Antioch and Fremont police departments, which use them to help fight crime and assist in search-and-rescue work and other emergencies. Fire departments have gotten into the act too, using drones to go where it’s too dangerous for humans.
“This technology is becoming more commonplace in law enforcement,” Antioch Police Chief Tammany Brooks said. “They are amazing tools that work as a tremendous force multiplier for us.”
The Antioch Police Department, which just recently purchased two drones, has two certified pilots and plans to use them to search for missing persons or suspects, help with crime scene or traffic collision investigations, and provide visual support during tactical operations or area security during major events, Brooks said.
Though Law said he doesn’t himself own a drone, he readily agreed to head up the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle program when Chief Brian Addington brought up the suggestion more than two years ago.
“The desire was to acquire capabilities only available with a helicopter — the technology level and cost level met at a point that made it possible to have the capability to have drones, to be able to take photographs, use a forward-looking, heat-sensing camera called a FLIR,” he said.
Pittsburg bought the drones three years ago from manufacturer DJI and first used one when a suspect fled from a stolen vehicle into a nearby backyard. With a drone overhead, and video piped back to a screen on a mobile device resembling an iPad, officers could see where the suspect had fled and apprehended him without incident.
“It (the drone) was absolutely valuable,” Law said. “Ultimately, it’s a developing technology that we have been learning as we go along.”
In another incident six months ago, a fire erupted at a Chevron inspection box in Bay Point and the drone kept tabs until it was safe for firefighters to take over.
“With the potential for a fairly significant explosion, we were able to use the drone to see how big a fire it was and watch it cool down,” Law explained. “With this, we are able to use a relatively inexpensive technology to keep officers, first responders, firemen out of harm’s way.”
Law said the department has also used drones to help locate missing persons. Drones can check trails much quicker than officers, for example, saving resources.
“We don’t always find them, but we are able to quickly look at areas and narrow down the zone much further faster,” Law said.
And with the latest technology — 4K, high-definition camera models, some with optical zooms — the video images are quite good, he added.
Another use for drones, especially important in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is search-and-rescue operations in conjunction with the marine patrol.
“There are so many little inlets in the Delta where you can’t get a boat in,” he said. “It’s potentially useful for locating people in the water.”
Pittsburg police have shared their technology at events such as National Night Out and will again July 23 at the Police Activities League’s Science and Technology Day at the police department.
“It’s just another technology that’s there to benefit the community,” Law said.
©2019 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.