The city that sends a drone to 911 calls

When a Chula Vista resident places a 911 call for police assistance, they’re almost always going to get a drone. Thanks to a Trump-era FAA program, Chula Vista police don’t need special permission to fly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) beyond visual line of sight. The police department has been part of the “Drone as First Responder” program since 2018 and can now fly drones over the entire city.

In 25% of cases, when CVPD gets a 911 call, it actually dispatches the drone ahead of police. The object sends video back to the department, allowing it to assess the situation before cops arrive. CVPD says the first-of-its-kind program is tremendously beneficial for de-escalation purposes.

Critics take a different view. They’re concerned about privacy. They’d like to know what CVPD does with the data these drones collect. Previously, the department inadvertently gave automatic license plate reader information to ICE.

The department doesn’t release the footage it obtains to the public, which is another issue that has become the subject of a media company’s lawsuit.

Then there are the claims about de-escalation. Some mental health advocates say the sight of a drone hovering overhead could have the opposite effect in situations involving someone with mental health struggles. CVPD says its UAVs haven't appeared to agitate a subject so far.

Police departments are making technological leaps and bounds along with the rest of the world. As with all advancements, the benefits must be weighed against the risks.

Read more about the benefits and criticisms of Chula Vista’s first responder drone system at Slate Magazine.