A police officer in uniform crouching on a brick paved surface, preparing a large, black camera drone for flight.

On a typical Wednesday afternoon in August, Daniel Posada and his girlfriend were in a heated argument at a bus stop. This incident sparked a series of events that brought to light the controversial use of police drones in Chula Vista, a suburb of San Diego.

The Chula Vista Police Department has embraced drone technology more than any other police department in the U.S., raising significant questions about privacy, resource allocation, and the impact on marginalized communities. Read on to learn more!

The Incident And Drone Deployment

Daniel Posada and his girlfriend were arguing at a bus stop when someone called 911. From a rooftop a mile away, the Chula Vista Police Department launched a 13-pound drone equipped with a high-resolution camera and thermal imaging. This drone transmitted live footage to officers at the police precinct and the department's Real-Time Operations Center.

The drone flew northwest over Chula Vista, covering 23 blocks and passing landmarks like a preschool and a financial services center. Riding his bike, Posada heard the drone's buzz, and soon after, a police car pulled up. Officers found no physical altercation, but Posada felt unfairly targeted by the high-tech policing.

The Drone As First Responder Program (DFR)

Launched in October 2018, Chula Vista's DFR program makes drones the first responders to various incidents, such as noise complaints, car accidents, and domestic disputes. Since its inception, drones have been dispatched nearly 20,000 times.

The police perspective argues drones provide critical intelligence and reduce unnecessary police contacts. However, there is public concern about an investigation that found poorer neighborhoods experienced more drone surveillance than wealthier ones. The drones were often used for minor issues like shoplifting and loud music, raising concerns about privacy and resource allocation.

Surveillance Disparities

Poorer neighborhoods, predominantly populated by immigrants, face more frequent drone surveillance than wealthier areas. The police justify this by stating that more crime reports come from these areas.

Some residents avoid spending time in their backyards and fear the drones are spying on them. A resident even sought emergency medical help for depression and exhaustion due to constant drone surveillance anxiety.

The Expansion Of The DFR Program

The DFR program has expanded rapidly, with drones now covering the entire city. From July 2021 to September 2023, drones were used in about 7% of the city's service requests, often for reports of armed individuals and violent crimes.

Drones frequently fly over sensitive locations like backyards, schools, and public pools. Despite police claims of precautions to avoid recording private areas, flight data shows routine overflights of sensitive locations.

Chula Vista's drone policy prohibits random surveillance and harassment. Without public access to drone footage, these claims are unverified. The city has spent over $1 million in legal battles to keep drone footage secret.

Chula Vista officials have used the program to advance their careers, moving into roles at drone companies.

Impact On Homeless Residents

For the city's homeless residents, the drone program adds to their challenges. Residents like Daniel Posada and Nancy Rodriguez believe money spent on drones could be better used for housing and hygiene services. Early in the pandemic, drones were used to deliver public safety announcements to homeless encampments, further adding to the sense of surveillance.

Chula Vista's experience with police drones highlights the complexities of integrating high-tech solutions into public safety. While it offers potential benefits, it also raises significant privacy and resource allocation concerns, particularly for the city's most vulnerable residents.