When the Chula Vista, Ca., police receive a 911 call, they can dispatch a flying drone with the press of a button. They sent a drone to a crowded parking lot where a young man was asleep in the front seat of a stolen car with drug paraphernalia on his lap. When the man left the car, carrying a gun and a bag of heroin, as he threw the gun into a dumpster and hid the bag of heroin, the drone, hovering above him, caught everything on camera. With the help of the drone’s video feed, police took the man into custody. Each day, the Chula Vista police respond to as many as 15 emergency calls with a drone, launching more than 4,100 flights since the program began two years ago, the New York Times reports. Chula Vista, a Southern California city of 270,000, is the nation’s first to adopt such a program, called Drone as First Responder.
Two California cities and one in Georgia have followed suit. Police from Hawaii to New York have used drones for years, mostly in simple, manually flown ways. Officers would drive drones to crime scenes before launching them over a park or flying them inside a building. The new drone strategy has the power to transform everyday policing. Rather than spending tens of millions of dollars on helicopters and pilots, small police forces could operate tiny autonomous drones for a relative pittance. The automation raises civil liberties concerns as drones gain the power to track vehicles and people automatically. “Communities should ask hard questions about these programs. As the power and scope of this technology expands, so does the need for privacy protection,” said Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union.