Davis Police Requesting Acquisition of Small Unmanned Aircraft System (Aerial Drone)

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – The Davis Police Department is requesting approval for the acquisition of an Unmanned Aircraft System (Aerial Drone or UAS).  They estimate the cost of such a system to be $7100 annually (correction).

In the staff report, “These funds can be reallocated in the existing Police Department budget. Currently, the Department is allocated funding in two Police Canine accounts, with a combined allocation of $23,940.00. The Department does not have an active canine program and does not anticipate resuming the program in the foreseeable future.”

In order to use the UAS, the police department will have to submit to the council “a Surveillance Impact Report and a proposed Surveillance Use Policy via an informational staff report on a regular City Council meeting consent calendar at least thirty (30) days prior to holding a public hearing.”

The council will have to make “a determination that the addition of UAS has been balanced with the need to investigate and prevent crimes; protect crime victims and society from those who commit crimes; protect civil rights and civil liberties, including privacy and free expression; and the costs to the City.”

According to the staff report, “The use of traditional aircraft has been an integral part of emergency response for the last several decades. The ability to provide an aerial view is invaluable in search and rescue, tactical, emergency response, and investigative missions.”

Generally, however, smaller agencies like Davis “rely on the larger agencies to provide these resources as part of the regular mutual-aid agreements and, because Davis doesn’t control the asset, there is no guarantee they will be available no matter how urgent the need.”

As a result, “technological advances have allowed agencies to acquire small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), more commonly referred to as aerial drones, to support their operations.”

Staff notes, “In some cases, these aircraft can be deployed in situations where traditional aircraft are unavailable or where the flying conditions would be prohibitively dangerous to pilots and/or persons on the ground.”

UAS are able to travel at high speeds and cover large areas quickly.

“This can be particularly useful in situations where public safety personnel need to search for a missing person or other people, including those who commit crimes,” they argue.  “UAS can also be useful in situations where it is unsafe for public safety personnel to enter an area.”

Approved uses could include (but are NOT limited to): natural/industrial disaster; crime or traffic collision scene reconstruction; monitoring traffic flow for large events; search and rescue; bomb threat; tactical incidents and support of the fire department during significant incidents.

The staff reports notes, “There is a paradigm shift occurring in public safety response as UAS have become a critical element in almost every aspect of emergency operations.”

They note, “Several public safety agencies in our region have implemented very successful UAS programs and continue to develop their mission capability.”

According to the staff report, “The ACLU recognizes the benefits of UAS for a variety of public safety missions, although they do recommend limiting usage, not weaponizing aircraft, and ensuring strong policies for data retention, abuse prevention, and accountability.”

Staff quotes the ACLU:

“The ACLU recognizes there are many situations where drones can be useful for law enforcement and don’t involve undue surveillance. We don’t object to the use of drones for specific emergencies, or in bounded situations where there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to criminal wrongdoing (except where the drone will intrude upon reasonable expectations of privacy, in which case the government must obtain a warrant based on probable cause). We don’t see a problem with their deployment for such uses as accident or crime scene photography. At the same time, we are adamantly against the use of drones for routine, suspicionless, or mass surveillance.

In the ACLU’s primer on drone use, they warn, “deployed without proper regulation, drones equipped with facial recognition software, infrared technology, and speakers capable of monitoring personal conversations would cause unprecedented invasions of our privacy rights.”

The ACLU recommends the following safeguards:

  • Usage Limits: A drone should be deployed by law enforcement only with a warrant, in an emergency, or when there are specific and articulable grounds to believe that the drone will collect evidence relating to a specific criminal act.
  • Data Retention: Images should be retained only when there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.
  • Policy: Usage policy on drones should be decided by the public’s representatives, not by police departments, and the policies should be clear, written, and open to the public.
  • Abuse Prevention and Accountability: Use of domestic drones should be subject to open audits and proper oversight to prevent misuse.
  • Weapons: Domestic drones should not be equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation warns, “As we argued back in May 2020, drones don’t disappear once the initial justification for purchasing them no longer seems applicable. Police will invent ways to use their invasive toys–which means that drone deployment finds its way into situations where they are not needed, including everyday policing and the surveillance of First Amendment-protected activities.”

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Keith Olsen

    The council will have to make “a determination that the addition of UAS has been 
    balanced with the need to investigate and prevent crimes; protect crime victims and society from those who commit crimes; protect civil rights and civil liberties, including privacy and free expression; and the costs to the City.”

    Like the denial of free expression at the Davis library?


    1. David Greenwald

      What does that have to do with the council or the Davis police? Or are you just randomly triggered by certain phrases now? You complain that we don’t post your comments but quite often, you are blatantly off topic, as you are this time.

  2. Jim Frame

    It’s county property, so the Sheriff had jurisdiction.

    The library building sits partly on land owned by the City of Davis, and partly on land owned by DJUSD.  I imagine — but don’t know — that Davis PD has formal jurisdiction, but that they would happily delegate response to the Sherriff for problems at the site.

    As to the original topic, I support allowing Davis PD to acquire and use a drone, with appropriate policy guardrails.  Small drones have revolutionized our ability to see the world from a perspective that wasn’t easily attainable in the past, and I think it’s appropriate that PD have that ability.

  3. johncooper

    Hope ACLU protocols will be followed. I questioned “Search and Rescue “ but my wife reminded me that small children or at risk adults can go missing. Even in a town as small as ours. The thought of an eye in the sky gives me the Big Brother creeps, but I imagine my fears are more visceral than logical. Hope a drone might be helpful in stemming the epidemic of bike theft in Davis.

  4. PhilColeman

    For ongoing criminal investigations–such as monitoring traffic at a suspected drug house–a search warrant affidavit and judicial review for probable cause gives this community some assurance to the use of a drone by the police.

    Searching an area for a police-related need that has some level of time urgency (recently escaped or detected violent felon from custody, lost or abducted child, finding the location of a potentially dangerous brush fire or levee leak), these incidents can be covered in a procedural protocol that the ACLU and the majority of the community will support.

    Nonetheless, it’s an absolute certainty that some highly vocal persons or groups will be opposed to this tool for any reason. The infamous “tank” will be brought to life again as an example. The police will be well served as rebuttal by saying that general patrol police helicopters and been in use nationwide for decades. This notion is just a less invasive and cheaper version of a search tool for budget challenged departments.

    If reason and sanity should prevail (never a sure bet), the addition of a camera equipped drone promises to be a useful tool to promote a greater level of public safety.

  5. Tim Keller

    I am 100% Against the police department buying a drone.  But its not about any fear they will mis-use the resource – its because its not actually going to be useful.  Its a waste of money.

    I have been building and flying multi-rotor drones since 2010 – back when if you wanted one, you had to build the frame from scratch and solder the sensors into a prototype board yourself.

    In 2012 I was a finalist in a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration) competition called UAV Forge.  We came in second.

    I think I can say with pretty good authority:  The drone the police want to buy WILL not be useful in most of the proposed situations.  These systems simply dont have the flight-endurance necesary for most of the proposed use cases.

    A battery operated multirotor can fly for 15-20 minutes before needing to land.  Since they fall out of the sky when you run out of battery, most operators don’t even push their flight time even that far.

    Using the drone to scan fields of tall grass to find someone hiding in one, or on a commercial rooftop are probably the only use cases that make sense… if a warrant is needed to fly it.. they might as well not bother.

    They DONT “cover large areas quickly” because the control and video link has limited range.  they cant stay in the air long enough to “help with search and rescue” or to “monitor large events”  For that, they would need a drone with wings (  r/c aircraft )  Which I would support because those can stay in the air for over an hour easily, though they are harder to launch and then recover without crashing.

    Instead, I would reccomend that the same money be put towards a system like a Robot Dog.

    Now, the same people who freak out about drones are likely to bend in half freaking out about a robot dog, but hear me out:

    A big under-lying fact behind the very name of the black lives matter movement is the fact that police are trained to respond proactivley to save their lives if they even suspect a person they are interacting with might intend to hurt them.   They are supposed to shoot a person who they think might have a gun, whether or not it turns out to be a gun.   This is necessary policy to protect our officers, but we all understand it has significant side effects:  people getting shot who shouldn’t be.

    In situations where the safety of the officer is questionable, it is then safer for EVERYONE to send in a robot instead.   The robot does not need to defend itself at all, let alone with lethal force.   A robot can be sent in to assess the inside of a building and provide a communication link with the subject of the standoff and talk the situation out… or to investigate a bomb threat…    A robot dog can avoid the use of a swat team.  In fact, if budget allowed for it, I would  prefer that ALL traffic stops should be done with an officer sending a robot dog to the side window of the suspect car to talk to the person, rather than walking up to the car slowly trying to figure out if the occupant of the car has a weapon.

    THAT will make our cops safer, make us safer, and its a much much better use of funds than an electric drone that can only stay in the air for 15 minutes.

  6. Jim Frame

     if a warrant is needed to fly it.. they might as well not bother

    No warrant needed in the case of emergencies or traffic accidents in California, which are the use cases I expect the PD is most interested in.  And flying a light drone over an accident scene to preserve evidence is going to be a lot faster, safer and more useful than mobilizing a DFD aerial ladder truck for that purpose, as I’ve seen Davis PD do.

    A lot of my colleagues at larger firms have added drones and trained operators to their process arsenals, and are doing some very good work with them.  Despite the equipment and training costs, drones are very cost-effective for certain survey tasks.  I don’t see a problem with PD embracing the technology.

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