Police, fire departments present final drone pilot program report

The Culver City council meeting on Feb. 8 saw the presentation of an end of program report for the Unmanned Armed Vehicle (UAV) Pilot Program. The operation officially began Feb. 2019 despite civilian opposition and fears over police militarization, and spanned over the next 22 months with optimistic results.

Research on the potential use of drones for emergency operations were started in the city in 2018. At that time, only a few cities were using drones for public safety, but have since become popular for use by law enforcement. 

In total, there were 50 drone deployments over that 22 month period, 24 of which were for perimeter searches for armed or felony suspects and 15 for search and arrest warrant operations. 22 suspects were taken into custody largely in part due to the usage of drones. 

The police have emphasized the reactive nature of drone deployments, as well as the benefits of always being available when compared to borrowing equipment from other police departments. 

Each deployment of a drone was announced by the police on social media and Nixle, and are included in the department’s monthly report, and the program saw no citizen complaints during its lifecycle.

Assistant Police Chief Jason Sims also recalled story of a suspect on the run who gave up because he knew he could not shake a drone that was following him. He looked at the drone and put his hands up, something the department “never expected.”

Despite only being used for fires four times over the 22 month period, Culver City Fire Department leadership professed their belief in the effectiveness of drone use for approaching fires. Assistant Fire Chief Roger Braum outlined several example scenarios in which drone use would be beneficial, including structure fires, park fires, rescue operations during fires, and investigations of fires.

The drone program incurred $120,226 in total costs, which was comprised of $87,151 in equipment costs and $33,075 of overtime pay costs. About 65% of the overtime costs — translating to $21,418 — were spent during the launch of the program to train pilots, which the presentation sets as the first seven months.

When program was first introduced at a community meeting in 2018, cost was presented as $70,000 for drones and $500-1000 per pilot for training — or anywhere from $7,000 to $14,000 total.

The drones bought were consumer grade, with one model even being available at major retailers like Walmart and Amazon. The three models — ordered from largest to smallest — are the Matrice 210, Phantom 4 Pro, and Spark Fly.

Following the presentation, councilmembers made individual comments on the presentation and their thoughts on the program. Councilmember Yasmin Imani-McMorrin started by addressing the sensitive nature of the topic, balancing the safety of constituents against the concerns over policing that have been further amplified over the past nine months.

She questioned whether or not the return on the cost — 50 incidents for $120,226 — should actually be defined as a successful use of the program, and wondered how the deployments compare to other cities.

Councilmember Goran Eriksson professed his belief in the success of the program and emphasized the importance of both deescalating situations and ensuring the safety of officers. He cited a ride-along that he was on where there was a burglary occurring, and police were unsure whether or not the suspects were still on top of the building. 

The use of drones confirmed that the suspects were not on the roof, so police did not have to attempt to climb onto the roof with weapons drawn. Eriksson also praised the operators and their skill with the drones, .

Vice Mayor Daniel Lee prefaced his comments with the fact that he was not personally in favor of drone use, and had expressed that each time this subject has been brought up at meetings.

With that said, Lee’s questions focused on the collection of data, including comparisons to cities of similar sizes for both usage and cost of drone programs. 

He also wondered if other data that police are required to track — including arrest demograpics and RIPA data — were requirements that would be transferable to drone programs if a program were to be continued.

Assistant Police Chief Jason Sims informed Lee that the data was being taken, but only for those that were being detained.

Lee continued by inquiring about the possibility of aggregating the drone data and seperating it from normal arrest data.

Finally, he made sure to emphasize the idea that there is a real fear of surveillance by people in the community, no matter their political persuasion, and expressed his belief that while these fears may be unfounded paranoia, they are fears that should be acknowledged and not simply brushed aside.

Councilmember Albert Vera wondered about the 16 pilots, and wondered if it would be possible to ensure that every shift has a pilot to minimize overtime costs, which Sims explained was ideal, but was simply a result of working with what they had.

Vera also spoke on the integrity of the data, understanding that there is a frayed trust between some citizens and police. He ensured the public that there would be no gaslighting or “fluff” in the data, and also praised the department for following guidelines and giving him the confidence to make that statement.

He also mentioned the value of drones in potential saving the life of suspect in high-intensity situations or gunfights, and said that as long as guidelines are followed and the program is transparent, drones are a vital tool.

Mayor Fisch started by addressing the balance between safety and civil liberty in a similar way to McMorrin.

However, he was far more optimistic than McMorrin, saying that the main fears that he had before the program started — including overdeployment and notification of use — went “as well as [he] could have hoped for.”

Finally, Fisch got into a particular direction, saying the he believed it is something that should be continued and monitored, to which McMorrin asked for a potential timeline on the review of the program.

Vera seconded this in his comments, saying that it would hold the departments accountable while also maintaining a feeling of transparency among concerned citizens.

While there was direction given to continue monitoring the program with awareness of the desire for the seperated and aggregated data from the drones, as well as the comparison to other cities, no official vote or action was taken at this time.