The man spun a pistol around in his hands as he sat at a table outside a taco shop in Southern California. Little did he know, police were headed in his direction.
Hovering above him in the sky, a police drone watched as the man put the gun up to his face—and lit a cigarette. The gun was actually a lighter.
This crucial information, relayed to officers before they arrived on the scene, helped police avoid what could have been a tense and even deadly standoff.
It’s potentially dangerous situations such as this one that police in Chula Vista, a city in San Diego County, say they’ve averted by using drones to respond to 911 calls. Since 2018, the Chula Vista Police Department has used drones to respond to more than 17,000 calls for service, including reports of assault, domestic violence and people causing a disturbance.
Now, San Francisco could be on the cusp of equipping its police force with drones of its own, if voters approve a measure placed on the March ballot by Mayor London Breed.
But even if the measure passes, a series of regulatory hurdles will limit the ways in which the San Francisco Police Department could use drones in the near future and make it unlikely that the department will be responding to 911 calls with drones anytime soon.
In announcing her measure, Breed and her office have released few details about her vision for police using drone technology. The Mayor’s Office has said only that drones could be used to help with vehicle pursuits, sideshows and car break-ins. She argues that the police department has been hamstrung from doing its job and it needs drones and other tools to do it better.
Some critics of the ballot measure, including civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, say that the mayor has not explained how giving police drones would improve public safety. The local ACLU says the proposal includes few guardrails and worries that it would unleash a new reality where police could use drones to engage suspects in dangerous car chases.
Matt Cagle, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, said that drones raise civil liberties and civil rights concerns because they can fly closer to the ground and are less expensive to operate than helicopters, allowing police to peer into private spaces.
“The SFPD has not earned the trust to deploy surveillance and engage in dangerous car chases without oversight and without real limits to prevent harm,” Cagle said.
Others question the point of Breed including drones in her measure at all.
Even if her proposal passes, San Francisco police will still need approval from the Board of Supervisors to use drones, according to Brian Hofer, an Oakland-based privacy advocate.
That’s because while Breed’s measure would exempt the department from a local law requiring the department to introduce a drone policy to the board, the department must still comply with state law—and state law requires law enforcement agencies in California to come up with policies for using “military equipment,” including drones.
“There’s no burden-reducing benefit here,” said Hofer, who co-wrote San Francisco’s law. “What she is doing is just political posturing. … She is just trying to score cheap points.”
To give voters a better sense of how police could actually deploy drones, The Standard asked the SFPD to detail its plans for using them and spoke with drone experts to understand how they are being used by other law enforcement agencies around the country.
Mayor Breed on Drones
Dubbed “Safer San Francisco,” Breed’s measure would give police permission to use drones for two main reasons: to assist with active criminal investigations and “along with or in lieu of vehicle pursuits.”
Breed packaged this with a series of other rule changes aimed at empowering the police, including one intended to give officers more freedom to engage property crime suspects in vehicle pursuits.
At a press conference announcing the measure in October, Breed said her proposal would let police use drones, “so when that person is trying to get away, instead of, in some cases, a chase through our city streets, how do we follow them and how do we make the arrest necessary?”
Breed’s office and her campaign declined to provide more insight into her specific plans for police using drones. Instead, a spokesperson for the campaign supporting her measure provided a statement saying the proposal would make it easier to “add surveillance drones into the city’s overall public safety strategy.”
“The Bay Area is the cradle of innovation,” said the spokesperson, Joe Arellano. “It’s a no-brainer that San Francisco police officers should have access to the newest and best technology available to help deter crime and make arrests.
“Instead of going backwards, the moment demands that we think creatively,” he added. “That’s how we continue making progress and further reduce crime around the city."
How Drones Could Help Catch Fleeing Suspects
While Breed’s measure would authorize police to chase a vehicle with a drone, drone experts say regulatory and technological hurdles mean that’s unlikely to happen.
For one, Federal Aviation Administration rules require drone operators to keep the machine within their lines of sight at all times, which would be difficult to do during a vehicle pursuit. Only a few agencies have secured a waiver to break this rule. These are the same waivers that Chula Vista police and other agencies have acquired to respond to 911 calls with drones.
“There’s about 15 to 18 programs around the country that have these waivers,” said Matt Sloane, whose company, Skyfire Consulting, has helped set up first responder drone programs in the Bay Area and elsewhere.
Another issue is that the drones may not be able to keep up with fleeing suspects. Drone speeds top out at 40 to 45 mph, Sloane said.
But experts say there are ways that police could use drones to help catch fleeing suspects that don’t involve chasing vehicles.
Chris Eggers, a former San Francisco police officer who works in the private security industry and partners with a drone company called Fotokite, said the department could station drones at a crime hot spot to capture the makes, models and direction of fleeing suspect vehicles.
For instance, police could have a drone hover above the Palace of Fine Arts, a known auto burglary hotspot, to surveil activity there. If the drone captured footage of a crime and fleeing suspects, information could be broadcast to officers in the city and even to other agencies.
“You can have officers who are not in the area being privy to what’s going on,” Eggers said. “What they are doing today is just random patrols, or they are putting an overtime officer on one side of the park, which is incredibly expensive.”
Fotokite is different from other drones in that it is tethered and can be mounted to a vehicle, meaning it can operate indefinitely as long as it's connected to an outside power source, Eggers said. The drone could be operated by a civilian, who would likely be paid less than a sworn officer.
Another option would be for police to fly a drone in conjunction with a vehicle pursuit and have the drone survey the anticipated path of the pursuit, Sloane said.
The drone could help police gather information about the fleeing vehicle and the people inside it, and perhaps help pursuing officers decide whether to end a chase by warning them of impending hazards, Sloane said.
“Vehicle pursuits are incredibly dangerous both for police officers and everyone around in a big city,” Sloane said. “Using a drone for something like that would be attractive.”
How Police Say They Would Use Drones
San Francisco police were already seeking permission to use drones from the Board of Supervisors before Breed announced her measure.
Among the situations in which the department proposed using drones in its 14-page draft policy were for responding to sideshows, serving high-risk warrants, conducting auto-burglary operations and apprehending suspects fleeing on foot. The proposal would prohibit the department from equipping drones with weapons of any kind and using them to harass or discriminate against people.
Without taking a position on Breed’s ballot measure, San Francisco police spokesperson Evan Sernoffsky said the department recognizes that drones “could improve policing services.”
Drones “are a proven tool for law enforcement around the Bay Area and the rest of California,” Sernoffsky said. “They can be used to assist in de-escalation, improve officer safety and resolve situations more effectively and peacefully.”
Sernoffsky said drones can provide overhead views that inform criminal investigations and can get to areas that are impossible for officers to access.
“This could be crucial to determine if someone is armed when engaging barricaded individuals or searching for fleeing felons,” he said.
Combined with plans to expand the use of automated license-plate readers in San Francisco, Sernoffsky said drones could help track fleeing suspects.
How Other Agencies Use Drones
A 2020 study by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College found that more than 1,500 public safety agencies across the nation had drones.
Sloane said his company has worked with about 1,000 public agencies, including police, fire and emergency management departments, to set up drone programs.
Sloane said these agencies tend to use drones after an incident has occurred.
“This is not Minority Report,” Sloane said, referring to the dystopian film in which police could predict crimes not yet committed. “We are not going out and looking for stuff. This is often in response to a 911 call or a warrant.”
Other Bay Area agencies that use drones include the Alameda County and San Mateo County sheriff's departments, which each have policies allowing them to use drones for search and rescue missions, hostage and active shooter situations and to help dispose of suspected explosive devices.
And San Francisco already has a law enforcement agency that uses drones—its sheriff.
In March 2020, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office used federal grant money to buy a drone, but two years passed before its staff completed the training required to operate it, according to sheriff spokesperson Tara Moriarty.
The office has only used the drone on three occasions since, including during a ceremony in the Presidio commemorating the Bataan Death March and to help resolve a situation involving a suicidal man in the Western Addition.
Moriarty said the man was starting fires and threatening suicide on a rooftop, and first responders used the drone to find a safe path to him. The man was ultimately detained and taken to treatment without injury.
More notably, the sheriff used the drone for five days during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit last month, when San Francisco hosted world leaders including U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Moriarty said the office used the drones during APEC to “provide situational awareness and a common operating picture for all,” but did not respond to a request for further details about where the drones were used. Moriarty said the footage was not recorded.
“This was to ensure that delegates, citizens and first responders remained safe during the expression of First Amendment rights exercises,” she said. “It also afforded us a bird’s-eye view and over-watch of the activities citywide.”