“We will be starting an eighteen month long pilot program to gather data and experience how drones can work for Culver City.” When CCPD Chief Scott Bixby opened the community meeting at the Senior Center on August 9, 2018, he addressed a small crowd of less than fifty, seated to consider the concept of policing by machines.
Since the City Council meeting this past March that gave the stamp of approval to the drone program, the Culver City Police Department has made arrangements to purchase three different kinds of drones. In a powerpoint presentation, Captain Jason Sims noted that there would be two of the largest style, called Matrice, three of the medium style, called Phantoms, and two of the smallest, called Sparks. All of the drones would be equipped with cameras, and only the Matrice models would have the capability of infrared viewing and night vision. None would have any ability to capture audio, and they would be used by drone pilots on site. The Spark drones would only have 40 minutes worth of battery power before needing to return and re-charge. “The drone will be within sight of the officer controlling it from the ground,” Sims offered, “and there will be a pilot training program at a one-time cost of about $500 to $1000 per officer.” The cost of the drones was stated to be $70,000.
Emphasis was given to the function of the drones – that they were not to be used for surveillance and that would be superseded only by a search warrant, a court order, or ‘when exigent circumstances exist.’ Sims offered an example of a live shooter at a school or a shopping mall as an ‘exigent circumstance.’
Fire Chief Dave White also spoke briefly, adding that the ability to use a drone to assist with fighting a fire – needing to see if there were people or pets still in a building without sending a firefighter in to assess – would be ideal.
Sims also cited the use of drones to assist with large events such as the Car Show and CicLaVia, with the pilots being able to offer help more quickly in case of an incident.
Using the Torrance Police Department as the ‘gold standard’ for drone use, the presentation used some of their data as an example of the usefulness of drone for police work.
Some of the residents who came to address the police spoke against drone use. Rebecca Rona-Tuttle said that she was very unhappy that the drones had already been purchased, and that “this meeting should have taken place before that happened. The people of Culver City should have been given more opportunity to discuss this.”
Jessica Cattelino brought up the idea of ‘mission creep’ – the concept that as more tools are purchased, the need to find uses for them expands. Asking about the surveillance issue, she inquired if accepting the use of drones might not open the door to a future use in surveillance. She also questioned the minimum length of retaining the data as a matter of basic protection of privacy.
Sims responded by comparing the drones to the body cameras worn by all officers while on duty, and noted that the data was kept for two years, after which it was automatically deleted. “If we have a need to return to that data – say, a court order, or discovery – then we have to go in to the program and manually reset the save. Without a specific legal request, that data is gone. The same with the drones. Unless we have a specific case where we need to save that info, we don’t. It’s all wiped.”
Cynthia Kennedy offered that she was “a resident of Culver City for 23 years, and I do support this program, but how will we know about what it’s doing? Is this going to be on the website, or on Nixle?”
Bixby responded that the details would be available on Nixle, but not the data gathered by the drones. “That is just for our department, and we will be giving the community as much information as we can.”
Several of the questions asked from the audience had to do with the possibility that the data would be requisitioned by the federal government for the purpose of violating civil rights. Bixby stated that if he was given a court order, he would follow the law.
Once the pilots are trained and the drones are deployed, Culver City will have until February of 2020 to decide to ground them or keep them flying.