Sheriff's Office says all's quiet
The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office says it has been very quiet on patrols since the shelter-in-place orders. Review file photo

The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office is acquiring six drones this spring and says it will use them during cliff rescues, hostage situations and to locate fleeing crime suspects. The program won support from all five supervisors at the Jan. 14 San Mateo County Board of Supervisors meeting.

“It’s a new technology being used by other law enforcement agencies,” Sheriff Carlos Bolanos said. “It’s just one additional tool.” 

Lt. Frank Dal Porto, who is leading the program, showed a short video of drones with cameras being used by law enforcement in Europe. In the video, which is orchestrated to music, drones are seen flying near dramatic cliff sides. 

“… This stuff brings up the question on who has access to this data. It might be helpful to look at the policy and make sure it’s accessible to the public,” Supervisor Dave Pine said. 

Dal Porto said the drones will have to operate in accordance with federal laws and must fly below 400 feet. The Sheriff’s Office anticipates using the drones for search and rescue missions, cliff rescues, active shooter or hostage situations, locating armed, dangerous or fleeing suspects and creating 3D models of crime scenes. Drones will not be allowed to conduct warrantless searches of private residential property without otherwise urgent circumstances, Sheriff’s officials say. 

No formal policy has been written yet on the use of the drones, but Dal Porto said when it is finalized it will be made public on the Sheriff’s Office website. The Sheriff’s Office will have to comply with federal laws regarding where drones can fly. City ordinances that prohibit flying drones in certain areas will not apply to law enforcement, he said. 

The Sheriff’s Office drones will come from Chinese manufacturer DJI. The drones will have a camera system that features a forward-looking infrared lens. It will also be equipped with spotlights and speakers for directing or calling for missing people, according to the staff report. 

The Unmanned Aerial Systems or drone program will cost about $65,000 for the equipment and training, paid for through the Sheriff’s Office budget. Dal Porto and four deputies will be trained and certified through the Federal Aviation Administration. All deputies trained in the drone program will be assigned a drone to keep with them while on duty. 

“It will have a big use on the Coastside with cliff rescues. It’s a great asset,” Dal Porto said. 

Any data collected by the drones will be stored in the same database used by the Sheriff’s Office for all officer-worn body cameras, according to Dal Porto. The Sheriff’s Office is also expected to document and report to the FAA each time a drone is used in the field. 

“The technology is so amazing,” Supervisor David Canepa.  “I think we have to utilize it. It gives law enforcement the best tools, but it also gives the public the best tools.”

The Sheriff’s Office is joining many other law enforcement agencies in the Bay Area by adding drone surveillance technology. Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office, Menlo Park Fire Department and several other departments have been using drones for years. 

The Marin County Sheriff’s Office started its program in 2018 with five drones. It now has eight. While Marin County Sheriff Sgt. Brenton Schneider said the department did not receive complaints over privacy concerns, the office created a YouTube video that outlined the policy and procedures for the drones. 

“We posted it on our website and social media to be as transparent as possible,” Schneider said. “We did not have any specific concerns from the public regarding the drones, but we did try and address it and be upfront and explain the vision behind using them.” 

Every quarter the department publishes a public report documenting the uses of the drone. One recent instance Schneider recalled involved a suspect in a vehicle reportedly with a gun. By using a drone, deputies were able to stay at a distance from the vehicle but could see what the suspect was doing with the weapon inside the car. 

“We have seen a great increase in the service we provide because of the UAVs,” Schneider said. “It is invaluable. It lets us use our resources and we are not putting deputies in danger.” 

As of May 2018, at least 910 state and local public safety agencies have purchased drones, according to research by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. Of those, 599 are law enforcement agencies.

While use of the technology is exploding, some privacy experts and civil liberties advocates warn to be cautious of routine aerial surveillance and worry law enforcement may look to expand the use of their drone programs. 

“There are a bunch of privacy risks that come from drones, which stem from the fact that the cameras are very good and can home in on and take precise images from a far distance,” said Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at the Constitution Project. The Constitution Project is concerned with threats to civil liberties.

Laperruque said these advances in technology go beyond typical policing tools. He also cautioned against allowing law enforcement agencies to draft their own policies regarding drones. 

“From a privacy standpoint, people should worry,” he said. “Something like surveillance technology, you do not want self-regulation by the entities conducting the policing. You want an independent party, like the legislature or the courts, to set rules they will be subject to and cannot change on a whim.”

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