San Diego’s Public Safety Committee approves SDPD, SDFD use of drone technology

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

Unmanned aircraft systems, also referred to as UAS systems or drones, have been used by city of San Diego first responders for years.

“In 2018, we had our first mission, and for the next few years, we kind of had a slow rollout while being very careful on the types of missions we would respond to,” Sgt. Nicholas Link with the San Diego Police Department told NBC 7. “It was very much a learning process.”

Link is a certified Federal Aviation Administration drone pilot and the person who developed SDPD’s UAS program. The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department also started their program in 2018. Now, both agencies need to go through the process of being approved under the city’s Transparent and Responsible Use of Surveillance Technology Ordinance (TRUST).

The ordinance was passed in 2022, then amended earlier this year. It requires that technologies under a broad “surveillance” umbrella used by city employees are revealed to the public and can be evaluated with a privacy advisory board. That includes approximately 300 technologies.

“It’s always been a balance from the beginning,” Link said, in regard to privacy concerns that come with the use of drones. “We have highlighted in our policies and procedures and our training programs a little bit of extra emphasis on understanding what the Fourth Amendment is.”

Link added it is a priority of the department’s to ensure “we always are protecting and respecting people’s privacy while still accomplishing our law enforcement mission.”

As part of the approval process under TRUST, SDPD and SDFD held joint hearings in each of the nine city council districts in early November. It was a requirement but was later amended by the council because of the resources it takes to host them and the lack of attendance from the public. According to Link, only a few people attended.

Then, in mid-November, the agencies presented their programs to the Privacy Advisory Board (PAB). The PAB made several recommendations to both agencies but ultimately suggested that the council approve the use of the drone technology.

Then, the items moved on to the city council’s Public Safety Committee. On Wednesday, SDFD and SDPD, including Link, presented to the committee.

“A lot of the recommendations were just simply a desire to change some of the verbiage in the technology use policy,” Link said, referring to the feedback from PAB. “It was actually discovered that the majority of them, the recommendations, were already existing policies and procedures that are documented and we currently use through our department.”

Link said that in the process, so far, no major changes have been made to their drone program. In 2023, they completed approximately 60 missions. He also mentioned they have only been requested twice in six years for special circumstances — both times by city departments. Most recently, one of them was related to the flooding that happened on Jan. 22.

The representative for SDFD who presented also mentioned that many of the flights their drones take are not recorded. They are often used as real-time data for checking hot spots while fighting a fire, for example, and they decided that is not something that needs to be saved. Along the same lines, Link said not all of their flights are recorded, and if they are they are likely considered evidence of a crime, but the public is able to request to see a recording.

The Wednesday meeting ended with unanimous approval of the use of UAS technology pursuant to the TRUST ordinance for both SDFD and SDPD. Next, it will need to be approved by the full city council.

Advocates pushing for more transparency on how those tools are used scored a major win Tuesday.

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.