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Sheriff launches first police drones in LA County

LA Sheriff's officials unveiled their first drone Thursday, January 12, 2017, at the Hall of Justice in downtown LA.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC
LA Sheriff's officials unveiled their first drone Thursday, January 12, 2017, at the Hall of Justice in downtown LA.

In the first such move by a police agency in Los Angeles County, the sheriff's department Thursday announced it will begin using an unmanned drone to assist deputies on the ground.

Many law enforcement leaders see drones as an important part of policing in the future – particularly in urban areas. In California, 30 police agencies use them. Across the nation, more than 300 departments deploy drones, according to sheriff's Captain Jack Ewell.

The LAPD received two drones as a donation from the Seattle Police Department four years ago but has yet to deploy them.

The Federal Aviation Administration approved the sheriff's application to use the drone in specifically defined incidents. They include search and rescue operations, explosive ordinance detection, hazardous materials incidents, disaster response, and incidents involving barricaded and armed suspects.

Sheriff's officials hope to use the tool in situations where deputies otherwise might be forced to move into harm's way. For instance, if a suspect is barricaded, a deputy usually needs to move close in to figure out where the suspect is hiding and the layout of the property. A drone can do that more safely and better than a robot, said Ewell.

“It will provide a clearer view, and different angles that you would not get using a robot," he said.

The drone, similar to one use by filmmakers, cost the department $10,000. It can go as high as 400 feet, travel at more than 50 mph and has a battery life of 20 minutes.

Deputies will operate it using a remote control outfitted with an iPad to view what the camera is catching. 

Civil libertarians have expressed concerns police use of drones threatens personal privacy. They worry drones deployed for one reason could easily be used to look at an entire neighborhood in search of potential law violators.

Ewell said the sheriff has prohibited that.

“The sheriff department policy is this device shall not be used for any type of random surveillance,” he said.

Such a policy is unlikely to convince some drone opponents. A group called Drone-Free LAPD/No Drones, LA! Campaign wrote a letter to LA Mayor Eric Garrett in November of 2015, warning against the use of drones.

"The use of drone technology further militarizes law enforcement tactics, linking local law enforcement to garrison style military rule," the campaign wrote. 

Sheriff Jim McDonnell said the relatively low cost drone is an example of using the latest technology to improve policing.

"Its a tremendous asset to us to be able to help protect our folks as well as those we serve," said McDonnell.

The drone may be used in a number of unexpected ways, including in arson investigations to look at burn patterns from above to determine the fire's point of origin. It might also be used to look for any survivors of a fire or natural disaster trapped inside a building, said Ewell.

The sheriff's department decided to begin using a drone now because the technology used to build unmanned aircraft systems has improved dramatically over the past couple of years. In addition, the FAA — at the request of Congress — issued clearer guidelines on when and where drones can be used, said Ewell.