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Criminal Justice

The LAPD Used Drones Just 5 Times In A Year

A dark grey drone with four propellers and a camera hovers in mid-air.
File photo: A DJI Mavic Pro Quadcopter drone is seen on flight at a 2017 convention in Germany. The LAPD purchased Mavics in 2019.
(Omer Messinger
Getty Images)
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The LAPD has been using its drones very sparingly. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, it turned to them just five times, according to a report to the Los Angeles Police Commission.

The department did not use drones to monitor last year’s protests over the murder of George Floyd, according to the report.

Officers may only use drones in a limited and strict set of scenarios: hostage situations, bomb squad responses, shootings and other immediately dangerous incidents. Top SWAT commanders must approve each drone use.

In the five instances SWAT used drones, they flew for an average of 22 minutes, the report says. Three involved people who were barricaded in a building, one was used during the serving of a search warrant, and one was used in an incident involving someone sitting in a stairway with a gun within arm’s reach.

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'A Significant Role In...Resolving The incident'

Twice, SWAT used drones in concert with ground robots.

Chief Michel Moore, who presents the report to the commission on Tuesday, has long argued drones make officers and suspects safer, helping to bring dangerous situations to a peaceful close. That happened in each of these five incidents.

Drones “played a significant role in safely and effectively resolving the incident at hand,” the report states.

The report also argues drones are cheaper than helicopters — though the data is limited — and better for search warrants because they’re quieter.

The LAPD began a pilot program using drones in 2018. A year later, they became a permanent part of the SWAT team’s arsenal.

Some police watchdogs have long argued against the use of drones by the LAPD, arguing they’ll lead to “mission creep” and eventually be weaponized and/or used to spy on people.

North Dakota is the only state to authorize weaponizing drones — police there can arm them with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The LAPD is among about 600 law enforcement agencies around the country that use drones, according to a report by Bard’s College Center for the Study of the Drone.

The Five Incidents

  • On Aug. 19, 2020, a drone used its camera and its radar to determine where an individual wanted for murder was in an apartment.
  • On Feb. 18, 2021, SWAT used a drone when it served a search warrant on an individual believed to have an assault rifle and other weapons. The location was surrounded by trees and elevated, and officers used a drone to get a clear video picture of the entire property. The person was called out and taken into custody, according to the report.
  • On April 2, 2021, SWAT used a drone to get a better look at a man sitting in an open-air pedestrian stairway with a gun within arm’s reach, and to communicate with him using the drone’s speakers. “The video feed showed the man had no additional weapons and helped officers determine that he appeared to be falling in and out of a deep sleep.” Officers arrested the man without incident.
  • On May 6, 2021, a drone was flown through a broken window to use its camera to make sure the area behind the front door was clear of someone accused of domestic violence, “allowing officers to safely open the door and insert ground robotics.” The drone was also able to see the woman enter a bedroom, pinpointing her location for officers, according to the report.
  • On June 29, 2021, SWAT used a drone to deal with a barricade situation. Officers first used chemical agents to no avail. They were forced to leave an area of cover, pass by two large open windows, and up a “steep, narrow stairway” where they could not use ground robots. Officers were able to use a drone to monitor any activity in the large windows and later enter through a broken window to make sure the individual was not behind the front door.
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