Fairfield police request $71,000 for new drones

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A DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise drone is modified to deploy artillery in a combat zone. The Fairfield Police Department is seeking approval to purchase seven drones that are equipped with thermal cameras. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons, Graphic by Solano NewsNet)

The Fairfield City Council is expected to approve a request from the police department to purchase 10 new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, that are equipped with thermal cameras.

The drones, manufactured by the Chinese technology company Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI) and sold through a law enforcement equipment vendor, will add to the police department’s current arsenal of seven UAVs that utilize lower-resolution thermal imaging technology.

The cost of acquiring the 10 new drones will exceed $71,000, according to a report issued by the city’s interim manager David Gassaway this week.

In his memo, Gassaway said the police department has successfully used its current fleet of drones to apprehend criminal suspects and locate firearms and other items that were discarded during alleged crimes.

Gassaway also said the drones had been used to observe activists during planned protests, which allowed officers to monitor activists remotely while minimizing in-person contact, which “[reduced] escalating actions of protesters.”

In addition to drone technology, the police department is occasionally assisted by the California Highway Patrol’s Office of Air Operations, which utilizes a combination of airplanes and helicopters to conduct aerial surveillance of police pursuits, crashes, manhunts and standoffs. Gassaway said the local CHP office recently notified the police department that it would be reducing its operating hours, which will make the resource occasionally unavailable to officers.

“With technology rapidly improving, new [drone] equipment offers better solutions to assist law enforcement agencies with locating fleeing suspects, finding lost children and missing persons, identifying discarded evidence, capturing video evidence and many other uses,” Gassaway wrote.

The improving technology has gone hand-in-hand with local law enforcement’s use of drones in criminal and other investigations. In 2020, the federal Department of Justice issued a report that said 123 local or regional law enforcement agencies affirmed using drones as part of their practice. The number represented around 44 percent of agencies that provided data for the DOJ study.

Of those agencies, about 90 percent said they had a policy dictating when and how drones could be used in law enforcement investigations. The Fairfield Police Department includes such a policy that prohibits drone use “to conduct random surveillance activities” as well as to “harass, intimidate or discriminate against any individual or group.” The policy also prohibits using drones “where a person would have a reasonable expectation of privacy,” but it allows for an exception when officers have obtained a warrant or “in exigent circumstances.”

The request for the additional 10 drones is listed on the city council’s “consent calendar,” which allows for council members to approve the matter with a simple majority and without public discussion, though members of the public can request that the item be moved to the council’s regular agenda at Tuesday’s meeting.

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