June 5, 2020


PERF’s COVID-19 coronavirus resources, including past editions of the Daily COVID-19 Report, are available at https://www.policeforum.org/coronavirus.


For today’s COVID-19 Report, we asked police departments with drone programs whether they have found drones to be useful for COVID-19-related tasks.


Key Takeaways

-- Drones can help police communicate with people in hard-to-reach locations. This can be useful for communicating with homeless persons about COVID-19 risks and protective measures.

-- Drones also can help to determine whether an in-person response is needed for certain calls for service.

-- But drones sometimes trigger concerns and opposition in the community. So agencies should be sure to do public education, demonstrations, and trust-building activities. Err on the side of doing more work than seems necessary to build  community support in advance, especially when using drones for COVID-related purposes that may be different from the original purposes, such as search and rescue.

-- Be transparent about how drones are used and what data is retained.

For more information about the police use of drones, see PERF’s new publication: Drones: A Report on the Use of Drones by Public Safety Agencies—and a Wake-Up Call about the Threat of Malicious Drone Attacks


Westport, CT Police Chief Foti Koskinas:

We Should Have Done More to Prepare the Community About Using Drones for COVID Response

We’ve been running our drone program for about four years. We have long used it for search and rescue. We’ve located several missing children and elderly people. We have a waterfront and will launch the drone over the water, as long as we can see it. We’ve even been testing dropping life preservers from a drone.

We have a lot of support from our community, and we assumed that we could just roll out COVID-related announcements via drone as part of our day-to-day operations. We didn’t get early buy-in from the community, but we should have done so, because it is seen as very different from normal drone operations.

We had the drones prepared with PA systems. The software would be able to detect when people were within six feet apart and not social distancing. There was not a lot of opposition to that.

But in addition to social distancing, the software was able to detect body temperature, respirations, cough patterns, and even blood pressure. This was going to be a pilot program, not something that was going into effect permanently. We were clear that we wouldn’t set policy until we saw what the capabilities were. And we would go to policy experts, not set the policy in-house.

But we didn’t do a good enough job of telling our community what we were going to do.

We were never going to use drones to identify individuals and pull them out of a crowd of people. It was about creating a system that would let us know if we had a crowd of people and if we were heading towards a pandemic.

We were one of the first communities in Connecticut to see COVID cases, and it spread very quickly. So the mayor and I saw this as a tool to save lives down the road. But we didn’t do enough testing or have enough answers about what could be done. We didn’t have the buy-in, and we ended up suspending our use of drones for purposes of addressing social distancing and monitoring people’s vital signs. 

A lot of our community was supportive, but we suspended it because it created too much division in our community. It was not a good time to create community division on something that was only a pilot program.


Chula Vista, CA Police Captain Vern Sallee:

Drones Help Us Reach Homeless Persons in Remote Camps, So We Can Give Them COVID PPE

Since the coronavirus emergency, we have had concerns about our homeless community. Governor Newsom has noted that the homeless community is especially susceptible to the virus, because they may lack proper sanitation as well as housing.

Chula Vista has large urban canyons that are difficult to access. Our traditional outreach would be to send our homeless teams on foot, trying to go camp-to-camp. That would often be a one- or two-day endeavor to reach just a handful of homeless people there.

At the advent of the COVID outbreak, we came up with the concept of staging services and partnering with the county health department, nurse clinicians with the psychological emergency response team, and homeless outreach providers. We staged these in areas near the urban canyons as a “one-stop shop.”

We used our drones to fly into the urban canyons, identify the location of camps and people, and communicate with them to inform them about the virus and invite them to the area we staged.

The first time we did that, we identified about 26 camps; we could actually see about 17 people; and 3 people came out and received services. We covered eight square miles, which would typically take us two full days to cover without the drones.

The second time, we were even more successful. We had 12 people come out for services. We educated them about the virus, gave them masks and hand sanitizer, and connected them to services. We were able to connect 2 homeless veterans with services and shelter.

The drone allows us to cover a large area in a short amount of time, which allowed us to give our homeless outreach team more time on the street for face-to-face interactions with homeless persons.

Building community support for our drone program has been a continuous effort. When we started our drone program in 2016, our first step was to do outreach to the community, civil rights groups, and privacy groups to understand their concerns and address them in our policy and operating procedure. Our community is well aware of what we will and won’t do with our drones, because we’re as transparent as possible. Nothing about a police drone program should be secret, except protecting video evidence for court.



Police Chief Craig Capri:

We Use Drones to Find Missing Persons, and to Disperse Crowds During the COVID Pandemic

Our parks are closed due to COVID, and we had some guests in the parks who put officers at risk. We used our drones to go in there with a speaker and disperse the crowd. We got a great response and had no issue.

We’ve had our drone program for 3 or 4 years now, and we’ve received great feedback from the community. We started it when we had Alzheimer’s patients leaving assisted living facilities and disappearing. Without drones, it would often require a massive search to find them, with helicopters and people on foot. We decided to start using drones, and we’ve had great public support. We also use them for search and rescue and SWAT callouts for barricaded subjects.

Sergeant Tim Ehrenkaufer:   As the chief said, we flew over the park with a prerecorded message saying that the park was currently closed due to COVID-19. People would just leave the park with no issues. We held a press conference before we started doing that to try to get public buy-in, which we did.

You can hear the loudspeaker drones clearly from about 200 feet. People can see that it’s a drone “speaking,” but it’s not close enough that they could throw something at it.



Police Director Earl Graves:

Rollout of Our Drone Program Was Smooth

We’ve been using drones to play a recorded message from the mayor to socially distance. When you do something new, there are always naysayers, but complaints and objections about drones have come from other parts of the country. Other than that, the rollout has been smooth.

Deputy Chief Giacomo Sacca:  We’ve had our drone program for approximately four years, and we were primarily using it for search and rescue, mapping, and suspect searches. With the pandemic, we’ve looked for a way to use it as a force multiplier as we’ve changed officers’ schedules.

Our city has large parks, a river trail, and a marina area. Many of these areas aren’t accessible by vehicle, so officers have to go in by foot.

We have to keep our drones in the line of sight, and if our operators see a group who aren’t where they belong, they can fly over and play a prerecorded message. They can also talk through it to give other commands.

Most people comply. I’d say we have a 95% success rate, where it comes out, we play the message, and they leave.

We knew there might be some public backlash, so we released our policy. We also try to show it at public events. We deploy it to most of our birthday parades and our graduation parade. Our negative feedback has come from out of state.

We don’t save any video the drones record except evidence. Everything else is automatically purged from our systems.



Police Chief Roy Minter:

Be Sure to Include Local Elected Officials in Establishing Drones

We’re a tourist town, and we have a couple of large parks in our city. After doing a drones demonstration for our mayor, he encouraged us to take the drones out to a couple of parks and use them to assist with social distancing. While we were out there, we did a press conference and show-and-tell with the media. But none of the other elected officials were invited to that press conference, and that didn’t go over well with them. They had some questions, and we had some back-and-forth with some of them.

We’ve also received some emails about “Big Brother in the sky” and people wanting to shoot the drones down.

But for the most part, the program has been very successful and well-received. There was a little dust-up at the beginning, but that has completely died down. We haven’t heard anything else about our drone program from either community members or the media.

Lieutenant Max Nowinsky:  This is our third year of operating a drone program, and we average 4 to 6 missions per month.

Some of the negative feedback we received at the beginning came from people questioning the FAA rules or saying that we flew over people, which we did not do. So some of this may be about educating people.

Even before we purchased drones, we started notifying people with press releases and holding public forums. So I think we did a good job initially. But there may have been some other thing we could’ve done to inform the public before launching the drones in the park.


Clovis, CA Police Lieutenant Jim Munro:

Drones Have Helped Us Cancel In-Person Police Responses When There’s No Need

Our friends in Chula Vista helped us get our drone program going, and it just so happened to coincide with the COVID emergency.

We thought we could put the drone up in the air, respond to calls, and potentially provide our officers with information to keep them safe. We also might be able to cancel the in-person police response in cases where we could see there was no police response needed.

We’re about seven weeks into a 90-day pilot. We’re flying about four days a week, and we’re limited to staying within the visual line-of-sight for now.

We’re seeing advantages in our everyday police response, not necessarily our COVID response. But we have been able to cancel some in-person responses, which reduces our officers’ contacts with the public.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.

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