Jun 7, 2024 - Politics

Chula Vista is pioneering police drones

Illustration of a police light on a drone.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Chula Vista is operating the first "full-blown drone program" in the United States, with 20,000 flights since 2018 responding to calls ranging from noise complaints to homicides, per an exhaustive Wired investigation.

Why it matters: The city's extensive use of unnamed aircraft as first responders is becoming a model for police departments nationwide while alarming civil liberties advocates.

What they're saying: "Some police officers joke that visiting the Chula Vista Police Department is like visiting Mecca," said Jay Stanley, author of an American Civil Liberties Union report on police drones.

The other side: CVPD officials told Wired its drone program provides intelligence to officers responding to calls — cutting response times, saving lives and reducing unnecessary police contacts.

Flashback: Chula Vista became the first U.S. city to launch a drone-as-first-responder program in 2018, and at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic used the devices to broadcast public health announcements to homeless encampments.

  • CVPD stresses that drones respond to 911 calls and aren't used for random surveillance or to search out suspicious activity.
  • Wired found that about 1 in 10 flights couldn't be tied to a specific service call.

Friction point: Wired analyzed 10,000 flights controlled by licensed drone pilots from July 2021 to September 2023 and found their paths mean poorer residents end up in the hundreds of hours of footage the drone cameras capture — far more often than wealthier residents.

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