The venue at the Culver City Senior Center on Nov. 7, 2019 held more uniforms than civilians at 6:30 pm, the noted start time for the report on the Drone Pilot Program. If attendance was any measure, the nine month check-in on the 18 month long pilot program seemed to hold less controversy than any of the previous community meetings. While the fact that the report had been available online for several weeks may have already answered some of the community’s questions, the presenting officers, Captain Jason Sims of the Culver City Police Department and Battalion Fire Chief Ken Powell, looked out over a crowd of less than a dozen residents who had come to get the information.
With each model of unmanned ariel vehicle displayed on a table – the Spark, the Phantom 4 and the Medina 210 – people could see exactly what the drones looked like, and Sims explained what the pilot program had entailed so far.
A total of 23 field deployments, each one notified to the public on Nixle, had helped to arrest a total of eight suspects over the nine month period. Sims emphasized the superiority of the drones over the use of helicopters. “Helicopters orbit, it’s just they way that they have to fly, and this can obscure the view of the area that we are trying to see. Drones hover – it gives a much better view, and of course, far less noise and disturbance to the area around the scene.”
The most frequent use of the drones – 10 out of the 23 – was to do an advance check on an address where a warrant was to be served, giving the police a chance to discover things like dogs in the backyard, or people leaving from a rear door. The second most often cited use was in a “perimeter search for an armed and/or felony suspect.”
Sims showed a brief video, taken by one of the drones, of a robbery suspect fleeing through backyards in Ladera Heights after a robbery at Westfield Mall. As the suspect climbed one fence after another, fleeing from yard to yard, he noticed the drone overhead – and stopped and raised his arms in a pose of surrender.
Sims was as surprised as he was enthused. “We had not foreseen this kind of effect at all. We were able to arrest the suspect with minimal force, with no weapons drawn, with no possible harm to any bystanders, without a stand-off.”
Donna Kent, a member of the audience who commented after the presentation, said “This could help to prevent police shooting unarmed people. They can see, there are no weapons, there’s no need for guns. This could save lives.”
Fire Chief Powell offered his experience with using the drone to secure the scene during the fire at the 99 Cents Store on July 22, 2019. “We had 10 firefighters inside, and 10 on the roof, and because of the information we had from the drone, we were able to get everyone out just moments before the building collapsed. ”
While Sims noted that there had been no citizen complaints on the drone use from any of the pilot missions, the main controversy brought forth during the previous meetings was not discussed. The video from the drones, which will be kept by the Culver City Police Department for two years, might leave some residents vulnerable if it were to be subject to subpoena by federal or immigration officials.
“Just having these machines available makes us less attractive to certain organized criminals,” noted Culver City resident Deborah Weinrauch. “When they know there are drones in an area, they avoid that area.” As an attorney, she was also pleased that the video would offer such clear evidence, “for both the defense and the prosecution.”
The CCPD and CCFD will offer a full report to the public at the end of the 18 moth pilot study.