Police in California city consider new ways to use drones during coronavirus outbreak

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A police department in California has been considering new ways of using its drones during the coronavirus outbreak, including a potential plan to communicate with “vulnerable” populations such as the homeless.

The Chula Vista Police Department, located just south of San Diego near the California-Mexico border, recently purchased two $11,000 drones -- doubling its fleet --  that will be outfitted with speakers and night vision cameras.

“We have not traditionally mounted speakers to our drones, but ...  if we need to cover a large area to get an announcement out, or if there were a crowd somewhere that we needed to disperse -- we could do it without getting police officers involved,” said Capt. Vern Sallee told the Financial Times.

The Chula Vista Police Department has considered new ways of using drones during the coronavirus outbreak.

The Chula Vista Police Department has considered new ways of using drones during the coronavirus outbreak. (Chula Vista Police Department)

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“The outbreak has changed my view of expanding the program as rapidly as I can,” he added.

Sallee warned the homeless population may be lacking reliable information on the severity of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We need to tell them we actually have resources for them -- they are vulnerable right now,” Sallee said, as the paper reported. “It might be impractical or unsafe for our officers to be put into those areas.”

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Still, police later said in a statement they would not use the drones to enforce any orders to stay home. “The department has not changed how it has used drones during this emergency, but staff are considering how drones may improve communication with the public under certain limited circumstances. Specifically, the department is considering one strategy to use drone-mounted speakers to communicate and reach vulnerable populations in inaccessible areas of the city, like large urban canyons with homeless encampments.”
 
The statement continued, “Police drones will not be used for random patrol, to follow or surveil residents going about their daily routines, or other invasive tactics which would hinder the freedoms we all enjoy in our community.”

The department has been using drones for about 10-15 operations a day, but solely for emergency situations. The police started using them for emergency situations back in Oct. 2018.

"With strong support from the community, the Chula Vista Police Department began deploying drones from the rooftop of the Police Department Headquarters to 911 calls and other reports of emergency incidents such as crimes in progress, fires, traffic accidents, and reports of dangerous subjects," department officials said.

Sallee said he's been working with the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] to expand drone usage in order to protect those in the community during the outbreak.

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“This crisis could be a catalyst to spur the FAA to free up resources faster,” he said, as the paper reported.