Chula Vista Police Department Using Drones as First Responders

Located just over 7 miles between downtown San Diego and Tijuana lies the city of Chula Vista. With close to 300,000 residents, it is the 15th most populous city in the state of California. Chula Vista was recently ranked as the 10th safest city in the United States, and that is largely in part to the efforts of the Chula Vista Police Department (CVPD). Since 2016, the department of 270 sworn officers and 108 civilian employees has been led by CVPD’s first female Chief of Police, Roxana Kennedy. Shortly before Chief Kennedy was sworn into office, the CVPD began investigating the benefits of a drone program.

The idea of using drones as police tools seemed like a natural progression to some, seeing the level of success military forces had with drones. However, when bringing a drone program into service for a state agency, there are many factors to be considered. Two of these main factors are the civil liberties of the civilians being protected and the safe integration of drones in shared airspace. Before the CVPD bought a single drone, the department spent a year working with the ACLU and the community to address any concerns. They worked with local drone experts and became the only police department to be selected by the Federal Aviation Administration to participate in the FAA’s UAS Integration Pilot Program in 2017.

Today, the CVPD is recognized as having one of the leading police drone programs in the country, a program they call Drones as First Responders (DRF). The CVPD uses drones to be first responders on a scene, a way of getting incoming officers the information they need to make safe and informed plans of action. At the beginning of the program, the CVPD would have a drone in the trunk of a patrol car to take out if necessary. This is very much how most police departments dispatch drones. With the help of the FAA’s integration program, CVPD established two tall buildings in the city to station drones for charging and automatic deployment. Currently, they are coordinating with the FAA to set up several more stations that would give them drone coverage for the entire 52 square miles of Chula Vista.

With the overwhelming support of the public and the FAA, CVPD has recognized just how vital the DRF program is. That doesn’t change the fact that police departments across the country are facing a lot of backlashes now, causing some to question the use of police drones. As Captain Don Redmond of the CVPD said, “We wanted to be proactive in how we responded with our drones. We have heard the national message that law enforcement needs to do things differently.” The first step in proving that the CVPD will be doing things differently is by having a strict ban on using drones for any type of surveillance missions to protect civilian privacy. Rather, the CVPD DRF is being used to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations.

When an emergency call comes into the department, Agent Matt Hardesty is on hand as a DFR teleoperator to dispatch a drone if necessary. With 27 years of service, Agent Hardesty has the experience to determine when a drone can be used to assist officers and protect the public. Sitting in a control room, Agent Hardesty answers 911 calls. “I can hear something, the urgency, and can typically be on scene in 120 seconds, many times before the call is typed and entered into the dispatch center,” he said about the rapidity of the department’s drones. “It is probably by far the best de-escalation tool I’ve ever seen in my career. We get calls of people possibly armed, and with the powerful camera I’m able to zoom in and be able to see if their hands are empty and be able to let officers on the ground know.”

One such example of how the DRF program was used to de-escalate a situation was in 2019, when Agent Hardesty received a call about a man waving a gun around outside of a taco shop. Agent Hardesty pressed a button and the taco shop’s coordinates were sent to the drone as it automatically launched from a nearby rooftop. In under 2 minutes, Agent Hardesty had the suspect in view with the drone’s camera. Agent Hardesty watched the live feed from the control room, while the responding officers watched and communicated with him from monitors in patrol cars. By the time the responding officers got to the taco shop, the footage from the drone showed the man calmly sitting on the curb. Still, officers had to be wary as the initial call reported the presence of a gun. “As we watched him with the drone footage, and the officers watched, they soon saw him take that handgun and light a cigarette and we realized it was a lighter,” said Captain Redmond. “So, officers immediately made contact. No guns were drawn. No shooting.”

Without the drone, a similar situation would have quickly escalated putting the suspect, officers, and any civilians in the area at risk. The CVPD is paving the way for other law enforcement agencies across the country to establish safe and effective drone programs with the support of the community and the FAA. The drones are helping officers do their jobs with a higher degree of excellence with respect to the public they serve. Reiterating that policy Captian Redmond said, “If we have no right to be there, then you’re not going to see our drones there.”

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