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Civil libertarians raise concerns as O.C. Sheriff’s Department prepares to launch drone program

Licensed drone pilot John Barrett flies his professional model camera drone above Rockpile Beach on
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department will roll out a new drone program between May and June.
(File Photo)

After years of planning, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department is preparing to roll out its first drone program under the watchful eye of civil libertarians who are raising concerns about the privacy rights of those who will be recorded by the devices’ onboard cameras.

Sgt. Bill Fitzgerald, who will oversee the program, said it will likely begin between May and June. The department will start with five drones and 24 pilots, 14 of them civilians.

The department’s aviation support unit, which controls five helicopters, will run the drone program.

Fitzgerald said the department will continue to use its other aircraft, but the drones will allow for better efficiency in certain circumstances.


“It saves time and money,” Fitzgerald said. “For air support, we get sent out whenever there is a homicide or serious crime. We send a helicopter and we have to take video and photos of the scene. That is something that a drone could do for a fraction of the cost.”

The department will purchase five drones to begin the program. They will include two DJI Matrice 2010 RTKs, which cost about $13,000 apiece, and three DJI Mavic 2 Pros, which cost about $1,600 apiece.

Fitzgerald said having 24 pilots is more than most agencies. The number is considerable because of the department’s use of unpaid civilian pilots.


“We are looking for that enthusiast or hobbyist who knows drones inside and out,” Fitzgerald said.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has 12 drones with 19 pilots — three of them civilians. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has six deputy pilots and one drone.

The Orange County department requires its reserve drone pilots to go through a training program and background check that takes about four to six weeks. They don’t go through an academy like a reserve deputy.

Once civilians enter the unit, they become subjected to the same standards as full-time employees, Fitzgerald said.

The program may grow, but Fitzgerald said that depends on the demand.

Huntington Beach police will use 2 drones in yearlong public safety test program »

Drones are relatively new for Orange County law enforcement agencies. Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach and Irvine have programs.

With the addition of law enforcement drones, privacy concerns abound.


“There is always a concern they can be used for dragnet surveillance,” said Melanie Ochoa, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “We are generally opposed to the use of drones because we feel it is almost impossible for them not to be used that way. If they are used, we want to be sure that there is a policy in place that limits their use to extraordinary circumstances.”

The sheriff’s department will use drones when responding to hazardous material spills, bomb squad missions, traffic collisions, search and rescue missions, hostage situations, while serving search warrants, disaster response and recovery, for fire response and prevention and inspecting county property and facilities, as well as other uses.

Fitzgerald said the program will be regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 107 rules, which address commercial and personal drone use. The program will also be accredited by the Public Safety Aviation Commission, which develops standards of accreditation for operations performed by public safety aviation units. The commission works with the National Transportation Safety Board.

Fitzgerald said following the FAA’s rule book and the accreditation will garner a higher degree of safety from the program compared to a certificate of authorization, or COA, which can be used by law enforcement agencies when setting up drone programs.

“The COA was more designed when drones just came out,” Fitzgerald said. “We want our program to follow the FAA’s rules. As a general rule, Part 107 is more restrictive than a COA.”

However, Ochoa said Part 107 generally regulates the functional use of drones and doesn’t address potential privacy issues.

Fitzgerald said the department addressed privacy concerns in its seven-page policy that honors residents’ “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

The policy states that a drone may be used “when there is probable cause to believe that (1) the [drone] may record images of a place, thing, condition, or event; and (2) that those images would be relevant in proving that a certain felony had occurred or is occurring, or that a particular person committed or is committing a certain felony and use of the [drone] does not infringe upon the reasonable expectation of privacy.”


Ochoa said an important part of maintaining privacy is minimizing the use of the drones. After reviewing the Orange County sheriff’s policy, Ochoa said there’s “really no limitation on the use of these drones.”

Ochoa also said she’s concerned with how the agency plans to maintain the footage captured by the drones.

“Drones have the ability to look into people’s homes, places of worship, and the maintenance of this data can be used to keep tabs on people who have engaged in protests the police don’t like,” Ochoa said. “There are so many ways in which this type of surveillance can be misused. History has shown it almost always ends in misuse.”

Fitzgerald said the cameras on the drones won’t be turned on until operators are ready to take footage.

“With that being said, you may not know where the right location is until that camera is on and you start flying it over,” Fitzgerald said.

Photos and videos produced by the drones will be filed into sheriff’s evidence and will be requested through the Orange County Crime Lab.