EL CENTRO – The El Centro Police Department is in the process of developing a pilot drone program to deploy an unmanned aerial system and is seeking to assure the public that its privacy will not be compromised.
The planned use of the unmanned aerial system, commonly known as a drone, is expected to greatly benefit not just the Police Department, but the city’s Fire Department, as well, city officials said.
Though the Police Department remains in the initial stages of developing the pilot program, it has established a policy that outlines the drones’ usage, and storage, retrieval, and dissemination of captured images and data.
The policy is intended to assure both the City Council and the general public of the safeguards in place to prevent any unauthorized use of the system that could potentially violate the citizenry’s right to privacy.
“We’re very conscious of that,” Deputy Chief Robert Sawyer told the council during its Oct. 20 regular meeting. “We really want to mitigate those concerns.”
He also assured the council that the unmanned aerial system will not be equipped with facial recognition technology or be capable of firing munitions or chemical agents of any kind.
During that meeting, Sawyer spoke at length about the pilot program as part of informational agenda item. Following the presentation, the council offered its support for having the department move forward with its next steps, though some did express some reservations.
Council member Tomas Oliva said his support would be contingent on the department identifying a funding source and performing additional public outreach.
He also asked whether the pilot program had incorporated the elements typically found in a pilot program, such as a start and end date, and an evaluation phase to determine its efficacy.
“I do not remember hearing whether this will start at a certain date and end at a certain date,” Oliva said.
In response, Sawyer said the department will host public outreach efforts, and that it intends to provide the council with a six-month and a 12-month report on the program’s efficacy, as well as to receive further direction from the council.
“I anticipate at that time we will be overwhelmed with success stories and we will overcome any negative concerns,” Sawyer said.
At present, the department has not identified a source of funding for the program, which is expected to cost anywhere between $75,000 to $175,000, agenda backup documents stated. Potential funding sources include federal grants and the department’s asset forfeiture funds, Sawyer said.
The Police Department initially examined the potential use of an unmanned aerial system in 2016 but had encountered an atmosphere of rapidly evolving federal regulations and technology.
It started researching its options again last year, and tasked personnel with establishing a policy and holding discussions with the El Centro Fire Department, which will have some of its personnel trained to pilot the system as well.
The police envision the drone program to be used on a case-by-case basis. Some potential uses include barricaded suspect and hostage situations, searches for missing or lost individuals, and documentation of crime scenes.
It is also viewed as a force multiplier for a department that has found it challenging to recruit additional peace officers. The department has plans to train six city employees to pilot the unmanned aerial vehicle once it is purchased and anticipates the process to take somewhere between six to 12 months, Sawyer stated in an email.
For its part, the Fire Department could put the system to use to identify hot spots in fires that could potentially reignite. The city’s Public Works Department could also benefit by having a drone deployed to examine damaged infrastructure in the wake of a natural disaster.
“We’ve all come to an agreement that this would be an asset that would be greatly beneficial, not just to the Police Department, but to the city as a whole,” Sawyer told the council.
Similar sentiments were expressed by council members, too.
Mayor Pro Tem Jason Jackson said he anticipated a drone being successfully used to canvas an area to help locate a missing child or person with dementia. He also expressed confidence that a funding source outside of the city’s general fund would be identified.
“I think there’s going to be some good stories coming out of this that will benefit this entire community,” Jackson said.
Council member Edgard Garcia offered a more nuanced response. While he acknowledged the obvious benefits of the program, as an attorney who is mindful of evidentiary rules, he sought assurances that the system would not be used for unlawful surveillance.
“This is a new technology and there is obviously always a slippery slope for it to be abused,” Garcia said.
According to the pilot program’s proposal, the department determined “there is a need for several drones to best fit mission profiles and serve the demands in El Centro.”
As part of its research into the use of drones, the El Centro Police Department had previously conducted public outreach to solicit public input, including through social media. The vast majority of those who responded to the social media posts were in favor of a drone program, Sawyer said.
The department had also reviewed the civil liberty concerns of such organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Sawyer acknowledged to the council on Oct. 20 that an attempt was made by ECPD personnel to speak with ACLU representatives as part of the process.
Although an exchange of unanswered phone calls did occur between both entities, the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties clarified that it was not involved in drafting or developing the ECPD’s drone use policy, said an ACLU spokesperson in an Oct. 27 email.
“We call on all local governments wishing to deploy this technology in our communities to require approval from an oversight body, such as a City Council or Board of Supervisors,” the ACLU-SDIC said in a written statement.
“These jurisdictions should also hold public hearings before any funding is approved or new equipment is purchased. The public is best served when the impact of such technologies on our lives is understood before launching any drone program.”