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San Diego Sheriff’s Department begins using drones to find missing people, document crime scenes

Sheriff’s homicide detectives showed up at the house first. Next came the drone.

As detectives began investigating the fatal shooting of a Pala woman last week, two deputies flew the drone over the outdoor homicide scene, taking aerial photos and videos that would become evidence.

The remote-controlled aircraft is one of four the Sheriff’s Department is using to document crime scenes, search for missing people, aid SWAT teams during their operations and for other reasons in dangerous or unfavorable scenarios. Two other drones are used for training.

“It’s an extremely valuable tool, and potentially lifesaving,” Sheriff’s Lt. Jason Vickery said. “We can save a missing person or we can keep a deputy out of harm’s way. That’s invaluable.”

The first law enforcement agency in the county to own drones, the Sheriff’s Department used one for the first time in October. Since then, the off-the-shelf models have been deployed nine times, Vickery said.

Rollout of the yearlong pilot program did not fly with the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties. Christie Hill, senior policy strategist, criticized the Sheriff’s Department for not holding public meetings before purchasing or using the drones, ignoring her organization’s advice last spring.

Civil liberties advocates have long expressed concern that misusing drones could lead to unwarranted surveillance or violation of privacy rights. Law enforcement agencies statewide have faced public opposition to the drone use.

After the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department announced this month that it acquired a drone, a small group of protesters turned out in downtown Los Angeles to object. 

“Can they be misused? Yes, but so can so many other tools at the Sheriff’s Department,” Vickery said. “If we don’t follow the rules for using them, there will ultimately be repercussions.”

He said the department’s policy prohibits using drones for mass or random surveillance.

So far, four deputies are trained and certified to fly the drones; five are being trained. To become licensed, deputies must pass a test by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The Sheriff’s Department budget allocated $125,000 for the program, with training representing the bulk of the costs, Vickery said. The drones cost $500 to $2,000.

Police departments in Oceanside, Carlsbad, Escondido and Chula Vista said they are interested in the technology.

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