CONCORD, CA — The Police Department is looking to the skies for help in curtailing crime as they consider a drone program for specific policing situations but not for general surveillance.
As part of the exploration process, the department asked residents for input at several Zoom meetings this spring.
“Drone use is nothing new in law enforcement. Drone usage has been around for more than a decade,” Lt. Nick Gartner said at a May 25 meeting.
Concord police have used drones since 2019, with neighboring law enforcement agencies such as Pittsburg, Antioch, Richmond and San Ramon providing drones upon request as an “outside assist.”
Gartner said no further community meetings are planned as the department moves into the “next phase,” which includes researching existing policies and equipment that other agencies are using. He added that residents will have a chance for comment as the program moves toward City Council consideration, and that no timeline has been set.
Resident Laura Nakamura is following the progress and attended one of the department’s meetings.
“To me, it’s like the wheels are in motion and it’s going to happen. The question is how,” Nakamura said. “If it’s going to happen, it’s very important that we get citizen oversight.”
The department created a list clarifying what drones would and would not be used for, emphasizing that it would be for specific not general surveillance. Uses includes missing person searches, aerial reinforcement of a crime scene, situation analysis and advanced surveillance when determined necessary, for example in issuing a search warrant deemed dangerous. Drones would not be used for general surveillance, to harass or intimidate, in backyards or for weaponized use.
The department has not stated the cost of launching and maintaining the program, except to note that they envision grants as primary funding. In 2019, the Pittsburg Police Department indicated the city’s program cost about $50,000 to start.
“Any funding, whether internal or external, would be identified. It wouldn’t be something that would be concealed,” Gartner said.
Nakamura, who represents Concord Communities Alliance District 5, wants to make sure the approval process and implementation are transparent.
“We are in an era where we are seeing people scrutinize the police budget,” she said, adding that citizen oversight also is needed to address privacy issues.
Gartner said data collected would be stored in the same manner as body-worn camera data: in the Cloud. It would have classifications and timed-out settings for deletion, depending on the case and need of the evidence.
Any program would comply with Federal Aviation Association policies, and officers with FAA-approved training would control the drone.
Additionally, a committee including police, community members, and legal and privacy representatives would oversee adoption of a use policy.
“We still have a lot to do but rest assured that nothing’s going to be done or approved without this information being public facing and openly being discussed with the City Council,” Gartner said.
Karen Jenkins is pleased to be a correspondent with the Concord Clayton Pioneer News. She has worked as a community journalist on and off for three decades at publications including the Contra Costa Sun in Lamorinda; the Antioch Daily Ledger; the Avon-Beaver Creek Times in Colorado; Roll Call in Washington, D.C. and the Daily Nexus at UC-Santa Barbara. She is also the student advisor for The Sentinel, the student newspaper at Northgate High School in Walnut Creek. She may be reached at Karenjenkins241@gmail.com.