Upon securing the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval, Sheriff Jim McDonnell announced that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) will use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in specifically defined incidents that include: search and rescue, explosive ordnance detection, hazardous materials incidents, disaster response, arson fires, hostage rescue, and barricaded and armed suspects.

(Photo: LASD)
(Photo: LASD)

“The dangers of law enforcement can never be eliminated,” said McDonnell. “However, this technology can assist us in reducing the impact of risks on personnel and allow us to perform operations to enhance public safety.”

The drones will be assigned to the Special Enforcement Bureau, where it will be used by the Emergency Services Detail, Special Enforcement Detail, Arson/Explosives Detail, and the HazMat Detail. The remote-controlled drone comes equipped with an on-board video camera that will provide closeup views of potential subjects, as well as victims.

“The ability to rapidly gather otherwise inaccessible, yet vital, information during tactical operations is exponentially increased and can, thus, assist deputies to better determine the safest, most prudent and humane approaches to uncertain, isolated or hostile situations,” said the sheriff’s office in a statement.

However, not everyone was happy with the announcement. Roughly 20 people protested in downtown Los Angeles. Protesters called on the LASD to immediately suspend plans to deploy a drone in emergency situations, fearing that the device will be used for warrantless surveillance.

One of the leaders of the protest, Hamid Khan, founder of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, said his group was opposed to the use of any drones, even in response to bomb threats or hostage situations.

“What this represents is the rapid escalation and militarization of police,” Khan said.

However, the LASD maintains that the drones will not be used for surveillance.

“The UAS will not be used to spy on the public,” McDonnell said, repeating the promise multiple times. “Our policy forbids using [it] for random surveillance.”

Additionally, the drone will only be used by trained deputies who possess a Remote Pilot certificate with a small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS) rating from the FAA. Deputy personnel also trained as tactical medics can use the UAS to remotely assess injured patients and provide them with rapid medical care, said the sheriff’s office.

The drone can remain in the air for 20 minutes and has a range of one mile; but under FAA rules, Sheriff’s Department personnel must maintain visual contact with the device while flying it, according to Capt. Jack Ewell of the LASD’s special operations bureau.

The sheriff’s office specifically cited bomb threats or suspicious package incidents as a key way the UAS will help protect officer and civilian safety. By using the drone, officers can maintain a safe distance from the suspicious package, while still investigating the threat. With the department receiving nearly 600 suspicious package or bomb threat calls a year, the sheriff’s office is hopeful the new technology will keep officers safe.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs