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LAPD Moves Toward Making Drone Program Permanent, Expanding Inventory and Applications

BY Zacc Dukowitz
12 July 2019

Earlier this week the Los Angeles Police Department sent a letter to the city’s Board of Police Commissioners asking to make their drone program permanent.

Image taken by an LAPD drone during a standoff with a robbery suspect

The request was quickly and unanimously given preliminary approval by the five-member civilian Police Commission.

Up to now, the LAPD’s drone program has been temporary and has only included four smaller drone models.

If the Police Commission gives final approval—which seems likely—the program will be made permanent, the department will be given funds to purchase more sophisticated drones, and drone operations will be expanded to the LAPD’s hazardous materials unit, its bomb squad, and for use during the apprehension of dangerous suspects.

[Want to learn more about how police officers use drones? Read this article on six ways police use drones in their work.]

LAPD Drone Pilot Program

This new approval from the L.A. Board of Police Commissioners is the result of efforts that began with the creation of a pilot program to test the use of drones by the LAPD.

Here is the timeline outlining the development of the LAPD’s drone program:

  • October of 2017—Drone pilot program approved by the L.A. Board of Police Commissioners
  • July of 2018—A dozen SWAT officers became FAA certified to fly drones for the LAPD
  • January of 2019—First drone deployed by the LAPD
  • July of 2019—LAPD secures preliminary approval to make their drone program permanent

When compared with the process the Los Angeles Fire Department followed to launch their drone program, which secured approval in about six months, this timeline seems a little slow.

Image source

Things may have moved slowly for the LAPD due to public outcry over privacy concerns.

When the LAPD first proposed its drone pilot program in 2017, they faced considerable public concern from citizens and privacy advocates that the police would be using drones to spy on people. On the other hand, the LAFD planned to use drones to fight fires ravaging the city, a fact that could certainly have helped expedite the approval process for their drone program.

To address privacy concerns when proposing their pilot program, the LAPD was given strict guidelines that only allowed the use of drones during dangerous operations, such as those involving active shooters, barricaded suspects, and possible bombs.

In addition, the rules of the pilot program required approval from the LAPD’s deputy chief of counter-terrorism for each individual use of a drone, as well as notification of the chief of police. Following each drone deployment, the officers involved were required to submit reports documenting the details of the drone operation.

[Here is the LAPD’s official document detailing deployment guidelines and procedures for their sUAS Pilot Program.]

About the LAPD’s Drone Deployments

Since they first deployed a drone in January of this year, LAPD SWAT officers have received permission to use drones in five more operations. However, officers have ultimately only used drones in four of those six instances.

In the four cases in which drones were deployed by the LAPD, three involved people barricaded in a home armed with a weapon. During those three situations, the drone was used to collect visual intelligence that couldn’t otherwise be obtained, which allowed officers to make informed decisions about how to proceed.

The program is exactly what we thought it would be. This cuts down the amount of time we have to shut down a neighborhood—that’s a huge benefit to a community.

– Horace Frank, Deputy Chief of Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations for the LAPD

In the LAPD’s first drone deployment, on January 9 of this year, SWAT officers used a drone during a standoff with a robbery suspect in an area of L.A. called Koreatown, where the suspect appeared to be hiding in a second-story apartment.

The standoff had been going on for seven hours before the drone was requested. Once approval was secured, the drone was used to give officers a view inside the apartment to help them decide what to do next to remove the suspect as safely as possible.

Community Briefing - small Unmanned Aerial System

What’s Next for the LAPD Drone Program

Within the next 60 to 75 days LAPD officials will be preparing formal guidelines for their drone program, which will then be submitted to the Police Commission for final approval.

In an attempt to assuage ongoing concerns about violations of privacy, the LAPD has continued to emphasize their commitment to respecting the privacy of citizens. Recent statements from the department have highlighted that drones will only be used at “crisis sites” during ongoing operations and that they will not be used for regular neighborhood surveillance or in any other way that would violate existing privacy policies.

For every single drone deployment, the LAPD will record the date, location, and time of launch. All data collected during the operation will be audited by the program manager at the department’s Air Support Division.

What do you think about the LAPD making their drone program permanent? Share your thoughts in this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.

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