April 15, 2023

Chula Vista, CA Chief Roxana Kennedy discusses her agency’s innovative drone program


PERF members,

Drones are an important new tool for improving public safety, but their use also raises privacy concerns. To learn more about drones, I spoke with Chief Roxana Kennedy from the Chula Vista, California Police Department.

Chief Kennedy has led CVPD since 2016, and during her tenure the department has been on the cutting edge of drone use by law enforcement agencies. In 2018, the department joined an FAA pilot program and began deploying drones to certain 9-1-1 calls from the department’s rooftop. A year later, CVPD received an FAA waiver to fly beyond the visual line of sight, expanding their deployment radius from one mile to three miles. In 2021, the FAA authorized the department to launch drones from anywhere in the city. CVPD now has five launch sites and has used drones to respond to over 14,500 calls since 2018.

Chief Kennedy testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure

Chuck Wexler: What first got you interested in the use of drones in your agency?

Chief Kennedy: When I was a captain, we responded to some tragic incidents in our community. I started talking to my lieutenants at the time and asking what we could do differently. Officers were rolling into a scene with limited information and had to make split-second decisions. And we just don’t have a crystal ball or all the information. We started talking about how our police department could get intelligence from the scene in advance and feed the responding officers more information. We started by going into the scene with plainclothes officers in unmarked cars who could then feed information to the responding uniformed officers. That concept started the discussion about drones.

We had a lieutenant who was a drone enthusiast, and I thought he was nuts. I said, “What is this, George Jetson?” But in Chula Vista we always talk about not doing things a certain way just because it’s the way we’ve always done them. So that lieutenant started a discussion about using drones. Then we started reaching out to people in the community and to different vendors.

Wexler: How did you discuss this idea with your community to allay any fears they may have had?

Chief Kennedy: First off, you have to bring people to the table who aren’t always supportive of law enforcement. We brought in legislators, activists, and people who may have concerns about the drones. We had deep discussions, and we even had people with the ACLU look at our policy. As we listened to the community, we changed some of our plans for deploying our drones.

We think it’s very important that we only respond to actual emergency 9-1-1 calls for service, and don’t randomly patrol with the drones. I know some people don’t agree with that, but I believe you have to crawl before you walk.

And we didn’t really have as many challenges until after the death of George Floyd. We then had to do a lot of work to build trust with the community again.

Wexler: What is different about the way your agency uses drones?

Chief Kennedy: Many law enforcement agencies use drones for situations like responding to a SWAT incident or searching for a missing person. We call those “drones in the trunk,” and they go out in the field with their officers. Those are reactive, and we also have those.

The Drone as a First Responder (DFR) program is proactive. We have drones on rooftops in five locations throughout the city, and each has what’s called a “pilot in command.” Inside our police department operations center, we have a drone teleoperator who listens to calls for service. When the teleoperator hears a call that’s appropriate for a drone response, they can punch in the address and a drone will deploy there. As this is happening, the pilot in command on the rooftop has visual awareness of the area. The drone has a 200x zoom optical camera that starts feeding information to my responding officers. And every officer has a cellphone where they can see the actual call before they get there.

We have an FAA waiver that allows us to fly beyond visual line of sight, so we just need to have visual awareness of the airspace and the drone can fly.

Wexler: When you recently testified before Congress, you shared an incident when someone was sitting at a restaurant with something that looked like a firearm. Can you tell us about that incident and how a drone helped resolve that situation?

Chief Kennedy: That’s the moment when everything changed for me, and I was beyond sold on this program. There was a call of a man displaying a gun and acting erratically. People were unsure whether he was under the influence or had a mental health issue, and they were frantically calling into dispatch.

The drone operator was able to get there in about 90 seconds and get a picture of the guy sitting at a table in front of the restaurant, moving the gun around, and talking. Those images were sent to the officers as they responded. We were watching the guy, and at one point he took the gun and put it towards his mouth. I was in the room and thought, “Oh no, he’s going to commit suicide in front of everyone.” But instead he picked up a cigarette, put it in his mouth, and lit it. We could actually see the smoke coming out of his mouth.

Still image from CVPD’s drone footage of the incident

So that information was fed to the officers. They were still careful and vigilant, but they knew there was a strong chance that he had a cigarette lighter, not a gun. That’s unbelievable information to get to the officers.

Wexler: What kind of special equipment is on your drones?

Chief Kennedy: The most important equipment is the 200x zoom optical lens. That’s what feeds us the information we need to make better decisions. The drones we use at night have lighting systems. We also have parachutes on our drones, because we wanted another precaution to protect our community in case of a malfunction.

Wexler: How often do you respond with a drone?

Chief Kennedy: We’ve used them about 14,500 times over five years. We’re now testing them with some nighttime operations as well. And we’re trying to integrate them into our fire department’s operations, so that they can pinpoint a heat source when they respond to fires or traffic crashes.

Wexler: Can you discuss the FAA approval you needed? Was it easy to obtain? Is that something police chiefs can do?

Chief Kennedy: It’s very difficult. But because we’ve gone through the process, it’s becoming much easier.

I think there are now about 25 agencies doing this nationally, and we’ve trained about 75 agencies. So there a lots of agencies interested in this, and we’re working to make it easier. We put out information in Police Magazine about “10 tips for starting a DFR program.” We feel like it’s our responsibility to help law enforcement implement this, because we think it’s the future of policing.

Wexler: What advice would you give chiefs trying to start a similar program?

Chief Kennedy: Some smaller agencies may be concerned that the cost will be too high, but it’s really not that high. It’s easier to start if you’re covering a smaller area. We’re 52 square miles and can cover our entire city with five stations.

We’ve very open to any chiefs who want to come in and see what we’re doing firsthand. I think it’s easier to understand when you can visualize it yourself.

And I recommend you get the support of your city council and your community. Ask your community about their concerns and be open about what you want to do. We post our flight maps within four hours, so our community can see where the drone flew and what type of call it was responding to. We want to be transparent and share what we’re doing.

The dashboard where CVPD shares flight maps

Wexler: How expensive is this program?

Chief Kennedy: At first, we had to prove how valuable this program was. In the beginning, the city wasn’t excited to provide additional funding. So we showcased this program to our police foundation, which is made up of community members, and they were more than willing to purchase the drones for us.

The police foundation can’t pay for any staffing, but we’re all facing challenges with not enough staffing, so we used salary savings to start this program with officers on overtime. Then, once we showed our city and city council how important this program was, it piqued their curiosity. Now we have these positions.

I think operating with rooftop pilots in command and sworn teleoperators is running us about $750,000 per year, which is well worth it.

Wexler: How can PERF members find out more about your drone program?

Chief Kennedy: We have a lot of information on our website, and we update it on a daily basis. You can email our Uncrewed Aerial Systems (UAS) team at [email protected], and the sergeant who oversees the program reads those emails every day.

Drone footage from CVPD’s response to a 9-1-1 call about a woman with a gun in the city’s marina area

Thank you to Chief Kennedy for taking the time to discuss her agency’s drone program. If you’d like more information, I recommend you visit CVPD’s website, read Chief Kennedy’s recent testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and read PERF’s 2020 report on the use of drones by public safety agencies and the threat of malicious drone attacks.