Irvine Police Department Begins Drone Program

Photo courtesy of DJI Technology

The Matrice 200 drone with a FLIR thermal camera attached in a search and rescue exercise.

The Irvine Police Department will get a drone operated by a four-person team after the City Council voted to move ahead with the program that police said could help in crime scene investigations and search and rescue operations but protect personal privacy.

The police department will use $29,000 from its training budget to fund the drone training of four current officers, one training drone, one field-use drone and spare parts.

The policy, written by the police department and reviewed by City Attorney Jeff Melching, includes guidelines on how and when the drone can be used.

“We gave consideration to recommendations from civil liberty groups” about privacy concerns, said Irvine Police Lt. Bill Bingham.

The council voted 4-0 Sept. 25 in favor of the program, with Councilwoman Lynn Schott absent.

The policy defines two different situations for the drone to operate: static and dynamic.

In static situations, people are blocked from the area where the drone will operate. Burglary responses, mapping crime scenes and training are considered static situations.

Dynamic responses include search and rescue, SWAT assistance, looking for suspects within an established perimeter and surveying national disaster areas. The policy defines dynamic situations as fluid circumstances in areas that aren’t cleared of the public, like when the police are looking for an on-foot suspect.

“To the extent possible, any camera onboard a drone will be pointed away from occupied structures and uninvolved persons, and no pictures or recordings will be made during flight to and from an approved deployment location. The drone will not record or take pictures unless it is for an authorized deployment,” reads the policy.

Councilman Jeff Lalloway expressed approval of the police department’s privacy consideration.

“I commend you on your respect to privacy and civil liberties, which is very important to me, that the uses are very narrowly tailored to specifically work … that you’re not going to be up looking at people and seeing what’s going on the city, using it for surveillance of people … I think that’s fantastic how narrowly tailored the uses are,” Lalloway said.

Bingham said the drone will not be used at protests or other First Amendment protected activities.

In a 2011 American Civil Liberties Union drone report that highlights benefits and privacy concerns surrounding drones, the ACLU gave recommendations to ensure privacy — many of which the Irvine Police Department seemingly will implement.

The ACLU recommends drones not be used during protests, be kept to a confined area, have specific police uses like searching for a suspect, inform the public about the drone and retain democratic control over the program.

“Deployment and policy decisions surrounding UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) should be democratically decided based on open information—not made on the fly by police departments simply by virtue of federal grants or other autonomous purchasing decisions or departmental policy fiats,” the ACLU recommendation reads.

The police department also plans on having meetings with residents to answer questions.

“…it’s our intention to meet with the community and share with them how the program enhances public safety, steps we will take to safeguard privacy and respond to questions,” Bingham said.  

The Los Angeles Police Department has been fighting to start its drone program, but has faced a wave of public backlash for not revealing it’s operation guidelines sooner and some critics simply don’t want the department to have drones because of its troubled past.

“All the equipment we intend to utilize is available to the general public for purchase,” Bingham said, adding the drone will be unarmed.

The department is looking to buy the Matrice 200 series from drone manufacturer DJI. It will come equipped with a forward looking infrared (FLIR) camera.

During Tuesday’s City Council meeting, a video shot from a drone was displayed, which captured a police search for a suspect in a residential area. Bingham didn’t specify which police agency it was, but the drone helped officers find a suspect hiding behind bushes with its FLIR camera.

Bingham specified the drone will not be used during automobile pursuits, but could be used for certain foot pursuits.

“If somebody was on foot and a crime had just been committed, and our officers are responding to the area, a perimeter was set up and it was a significant crime, that is a use we could potentially deploy this for,” he said.

Bingham also cited a U.S. Justice Department study that found using drones costs approximately 10 percent of what using a helicopter and its crew costs.

Councilwoman Christina Shea suggested authorizing two drones and allowing $50,000 for budget adjustments. But Bingham said the department wants to test one drone first before it determines if it needs another drone with other specifications or if one will work.

After some back and forth over budget questions between Shea and Lalloway, Police Chief Mike Hamel said the department’s current budget can handle an addition of another drone.

“The intent was to get the program off the ground, no pun intended,” Hamel said. “If we had a second drone now we could probably utilize that, but I think it would also be prudent to wait and see how this program goes with one drone.”

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio