SUCCESS: Chief of Police Roxane Kennedy from Chula Vista in California is happy to talk about the success the police have had with dispatching drones as a first response to emergency messages. After five years, drones are in daily use, and are sent out on 500 missions every month.
Foto:Trygve Indrelid/UAS Norway

500 drone missions every monthPolice killings led to California drone success

- We have saved many lives by using drones. It is strange that many more police forces in the US do not use our methods, says an outspoken police chief Roxana Kennedy from Chula Vista police in an interview with Dronemagasinet.
Ole Dag Kvamme

Five years have passed since the fast-growing city on the border with Mexico began using drones to get an overview of incidents before police arrived on the scene. Today, the program is an international success, and Chief of Police Roxana Kennedy shared his experiences on Monday 20 June at the Interpol conference hosted by UAS Norway in Oslo.

The background was a police murder, which led to riots in 2017.

– Unfortunately, a police incident led to a young man being killed. We needed to get a better overview of incidents, acknowledged Chief of Police Roxana Kennedy of the Chula Vista Police Department in San Diego.

Watch video: History of Chula Vista’s drone use

See also: Chula Vista’s own video about its project

Extremely skeptical police officers

The discussion within the police force went high. It was actually planned to send plainclothes police officers to difficult incidents before uniformed officers moved in. But then local drone enthusiasts in the Californian city  persuaded the police management to try out drones.

FIRST ON SITE: As of June 23, 2022, drones from Chula Vista have been first at the scene 6409 times.

– Many police officers were extremely skeptical: «Oh yes, now you are going to replace us with robots» was the attitude among many. But when they saw the benefits of drones, the attitude changed.

Today, drones are in daily use, and the term everyone talks about today is DFR – drones as first responders.

– We did not have funding in the budget, so we used a fund we had in the police and started. We are still struggling to come up with the budget for the police, Kennedy said, when she visited the Interpol

18.000 police forces

The United States has 18,000 police forces. In contrast to Norway, the police operate under very different rules from city to city and state to state.

The police in Chula Vista have been allowed to fly BLOS-operations (beyond line of sight), and due to the few tall buildings and a clear downtown area, the conditions are good. Police also joined an early test program for drones in the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The uniformed officer was directed to the possible suspect thanks to the camera view of the drone. PHOTO: Chula Vista PD

Due to FAA rules, police are required to have civilian pilots handling the drones. The police have four hired drone pilots who take care of the drones from the roof where they are flying from. In reality, it is police officers, so-called telecom operators, in the police control room who control the drones.

– The FAA is not happy about this, but we found that you had to have a good police understanding to use the drones correctly. We hope the FAA will drop the demands of civilian pilots eventually, and save money, but it is difficult to change the rules, Kennedy sighs.

Shows where and why they are flying

Chula Vista police’s own figures shows that their pilots fly about 500 times a month. 24 hours after a flight, the police department post information about the incident online, so that the public can obtain information about the use of drones. 

– We publish reports so that the public has an understanding of what we do and why we do it, says Kennedy.

Reputation is one of the biggest challenges for US police. Following the assassination of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, mistrust has grown exponentially. The need for information is enormous. This has also affected the police in Chula Vista.

According to the chief, human rights organizations constantly accuse the police of misusing information and violating rights. Kennedy lists a number of groups she constantly has to meet.

Chief of Police Roxana Kennedy of the Chula Vista police on the rostrum during the Interpol conference in Oslo. PHOTO: Trygve Indrelid, UAS Norway

– Misconceptions abound. For example, we do not want face recognition programs. But the technology could have been used, for example to find a person with a red t-shirt in a crowd. We do not get that either, even though we have no need for the name of that person. The same applies to car detection methods. Today we can use this to some extent, but we can not link this to registered ownership. But we can check, for example, a blue car of a given type, and see if there are similar ones in the area, Kennedy says.

That’s why the police drones do not fly surveillance missions, nor do they perform patrols. They are only sent out on specific assignments.

The telecom operators are able to listen in on 911 calls. The origin of the calls are automatically connected to the map program, so that the drone can be sent straight to the right place. The same applies to the patrol cars, which automatically pick up where the mobile or landline phone is, and then give the driver information about the fastest route to the place of the incident.