Drones in Law Enforcement -
A Deputy Safety Tool

by ALADS Board of Directors
The Sheriff's Department has operated helicopters since 1955, and its current fleet of 18 helicopters is the largest fleet of helicopters operated by any Sheriff's Department in the U.S. Manned by a pilot and observer, these aircraft are used to assist deputies responding to calls by providing aerial observation of the scene. The observations by the crew with the naked eye are enhanced by technology ranging from binoculars and spotlights to FLIR thermal imaging systems.
However, the announcement by the Sheriff's Department, that it would enhance its existing aerial capabilities with unmanned aircraft systems--otherwise known as drones---has stirred questions in the community. Due to recent technological improvements, which make drones inexpensive, they have expanded out of military use and into a wide variety of commercial applications. Some of the questions community members may have about unmanned aircraft systems or drones stem from the association of drones with military use or fears they will be used unlimitedly for surveillance. Today, drones have a host of applications including, land surveillance, utility inspections, search and rescue operations, disaster response, real estate photography and law enforcement.
However, we have been here before. The 1983 film " Blue Thunder " depicted a police helicopter crisscrossing the skies of Los Angeles, loaded with spy technology and weapons to control the population below. That fantasy description of the use of law enforcement helicopters in 1983 did not reflect the reality of the use of police helicopters then, just as the current debate over the use of drones does not reflect the use or role of drones by the Sheriff's Department.
As Sheriff Jim McDonnell outlined , this new tool for aerial support will be used for specifically defined incidents, including search and rescue, explosive ordnance detection, hazardous materials incidents, disaster response, arson fires, hostage rescue, and barricaded armed suspects. The drones will be assigned to the Special Enforcement Bureau and operated by trained deputies who will not be using it for random aerial surveillance.
The Sheriff's Department's Policy on Utilization of Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) details guidelines governing their use. The department has made it clear that the drones will be used sparingly and would be used in situations where it would be difficult or dangerous for deputies and other first-responders to view in person, such as hostage rescues. Public and deputy safety is the driving force behind the department's acquisition of drones.
These drones are not a replacement for the sheriff's helicopters. They will not be used for random surveillance, and they do not foreshadow a fleet of aerial systems that will be ushering in mass surveillance of residents. Instead, they are another tool that can be used in discrete situations, in the words of the Sheriff , to "assist deputies to better determine the safest, most prudent and humane approaches to uncertain, isolated or hostile situations." The use of the drones is intended to "obtain a more informative vantage point, and increase safety for sworn personnel and civilians during certain tactical response operations." In short, drones provide a vantage point ordinarily unavailable to deputies on the ground, allowing critical observations in situations, such as armed suspects without jeopardizing the lives of deputies and avoiding directly engaging a suspect.
Supervisor Hilda Solis introduced a motion, which was unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors, that calls on the sheriff's Civilian Oversight Commission and the Inspector General to devote some time and resources to examine the department's drone program . We welcome  the discussion so that the public understands that the department's drone program is designed to aid law enforcement in protecting the public and deputies and not for more controversial purposes.
Ironically, in the midst of this debate, there have been rumblings that "Blue Thunder" is being remade as a " drone movie ."  We are certain that if it reaches the screen, the depiction of law enforcement use of drones will be as unrelated to reality as the original movie.
The reality is that the Sheriff's Department's current drone program is a well-regulated program that will be an effective, but limited, addition to existing air operations and enhance the safety of deputies and the public.
The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS) is the collective bargaining agent representing more than 7,900 deputy sheriffs and district attorney investigators working in Los Angeles County. 

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