San Diego County Sheriff’s Dept. begins using drones

Following a deputy-involved shooting earlier this month in Rancho Santa Fe, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Dept. used aerial drone footage to document the scene and capture overhead images to be used as evidence.

Modern-day footage from these unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, can be paramount in such investigations, said Sheriff’s Department Lt. Jason Vickery.

“If it comes down for a jury to look at and see the crime scene in this resolution, it gives a good picture to the person who wasn’t there to what it looked like and how things transpired at that event,” Vickery said.

The department, which covers 4,200-square-miles of county land, including the cities of Encinitas, Solana Beach, Del Mar and the community of Rancho Santa Fe, began implementing the drone program in October after receiving permission from the Federal Aviation Administration in September and researching other law enforcement agencies throughout the country that used the technology.

Although the Sheriff’s Department did not seek approval from city councils or residents regarding the drones, Vickery said the department worked with several community advisory groups, consisting of community members and civic leaders.

The feedback was mostly positive, he said.

“Based on that, there wasn’t a whole lot of opposition,” Vickery said. “I think everybody felt like this would be a valuable asset and help the department to save lives.”

But others have voiced that feedback wasn’t enough and considered the decision premature.

Christie Hill, senior policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said the organization encouraged the Sheriff’s Department in February to hold public meetings before purchasing and implementing the technology, but that request went unanswered.

“We became aware through media reports that they were using the drones,” she said. “We still feel that the public should have input to understand the scope of how the drones will be used, the costs and the policy.”

Despite the community advisory groups Vickery said the department worked with, Hill considered there was “no public input.”

“We still believe it should be public so the community at large is able to participate and offer comments and input into whether or not this technology should be used,” she said.

Further, the ACLU said in a statement the Sheriff's Department policy “provides insufficient details about the ... training” and the language “leaves a lot of discretion for potential misuses of the equipment.” 

It is also unclear who decides what data is necessary to store, what criteria must be met to allow the sheriff to ignore constitutional rights and what is considered “reasonable and respectful” in regard to privacy, according to the ACLU.

Ultimately, the decision came down to Sheriff Bill Gore, who told the Board of Supervisors — which allots the department’s budget — about the intention to use the UAVs. He did not have to receive permission from the board, however, because the $125,000 cost for the pilot program was accounted for in the existing budget, Vickery said.

Since then, the six cameras — costing the department about $7,000 total — have been used by the SWAT team three times, for the Rancho Santa Fe officer-involved-shooting and at several homicide scenes, Vickery said.

The bomb arson unit and tactical teams can also use the drones to get closer views of potentially dangerous situations.

“It can do what the robots do, only with an aerial view,” Vickery said.

The idea is to get a feel of the drones in a year-long pilot program, which costs the department $125,000 out of its total $600 million budget, Vickery said. The cost of the program includes trainings, equipment and additional cameras, like a single $16,000 infrared camera that can be attached to a drone for night or dark footage.

Vickery expects the technology to speed up investigations by mapping out crime and investigation scenes in one shot.

Four deputies have been trained so far, with another four being trained by the end of January, Vickery said.

Vickery stressed that the drones — which currently have a 45-minute turn-around time to arrive at a crime scene — fall under a “checks and balances system” and will not be misused or abused. He said there are several policies and laws in place to guide and enforce how the technology is used.

The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, regulates usage at night, so the Sheriff’s Department needs to request permission ahead of time for that use. The drones also cannot fly above 400 feet.

Vickery also added that no footage will be stored unless it can be used as evidence. The department is also bound by the law to allow suspects to view footage regarding his or her crime scene.

He sees this as a useful tool going forward and envisions the devices in the back of all patrol cars in the future.

“By the end of the year, there will be several police and fire agencies using these in the county,” Vickery said. “I think we owe it to the public to explore this option and use this because it can be such a valuable tool.”

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