Concord Police look to add drones to crime-fighting tools

Despite turbulence, Concord PD moves forward with drones

CONCORD, CA (Nov. 12, 2021) — The Police Department is embracing 21st century technology to fight crime with help of a $30,000 grant, but its plan to fund a drone program has generated criticism in some circles.

Marathon Inc. supplied the grant with no stipulation on how it should be used, and the chief opted for an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS).

“As we did not have a UAS program and are woefully behind the times in use of some police technology, I chose to initiate the UAS program with council’s support,” said Police Chief Mark Bustillos.

“We see (the drone) as a tool available to officers in the field who come across dynamic and often critical incidents where the technology can be leveraged for de-escalation to obtain critical real-time information,” he added.

Lt. Nick Gartner, UAS program coordinator, said the department intends to have the Concord program operational in early 2022. They are still researching how many drones to purchase and how much to spend on equipment vs. training.

Testing and evaluation

Beginning in 2017, the UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) has brought state, local and tribal governments together with private sector entities, such as UAS operators or manufacturers, to test and evaluate the integration of civil and public drone operations into our national airspace system, according to Federal Aviation Administration.

Councilmember Laura Hoffmeister noted there is nothing unusual about the corporate community providing city agencies with money for programs, such as Marathon previously supporting the police canine unit and electrical vehicles in its fleet.
Privacy and policy ­concerns

Before the City Council gave the program unanimous approval on Oct. 12, more than 25 speakers voiced concerns about drones being operated in the city’s skies.

Members of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said drones tend to target brown, Black and Indigenous peoples who attend rallies and protests. They believe the invasive nature of drones can lead to privacy violations, false identifications, and wrongful arrests and convictions.

Laura Nakamura, a longtime resident of Concord, sees both sides of this hot-button issue. While not opposed to drones for public safety, she has concerns about the policies and processes through which the program will operate.

“Relationships (or partnerships) are built on certain characteristics,” she wrote to the council. “In Concord, I believe those characteristics should include transparency, two-way respect, direct collaboration, and recognition that the community should have an active voice in policing policies, oversight, and budgetary and operational effectiveness.”

With technology like license plate readers and drones, Nakamura believes it’s important to fully understand the scope of the usage.
“This should entail increased transparency and reporting of data and making right-fit adjustments to policies that best reflect our city,” she added.

Although the city isn’t addressing all the concerns, including formation of an oversight committee that advocates said would prevent potential abuse, Bustillos said the ideas did not fall on deaf ears.

“We did listen and have added training missions to the publicly available flight log so the public can see where/how/when we use implement the UAS,” he said.

Way forward for drones

Currently, Concord reaches out to the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department or the Walnut Creek Police Department when a need arises. If such tools are available, neighboring agencies gladly lend their support and services.

A case in point involved a recent incident in Martinez where Concord PD provided mutual aid in the form of on-duty crisis negotiators when an individual threatened to jump off the trail trestle.

The use of a UAS when dealing with armed or potentially armed subjects who may barricade themselves in a home or vehicle is just one of many applications Concord PD cited in its proposal to city officials. Likewise, there are search and rescue applications for at-risk youth or elders who have wandered off from their homes or facilities.

“Both are huge resource-allocated events, and the UAS will be used as a force multiplier to check areas faster and with fewer officers. This is especially critical as we are at historic lows in terms of police staffing,” Bustillos noted.

He referred back to a drone as a tool to de-escalate a situation by slowing things down and gathering additional information. This creates on opportunity to use critical thinking skills to develop a plan and make communication options available.

“De-escalation is not a thing – it is a process,” he said.

The bottom line for the chief is doing what he can through the means available to enhance the safety of Concord residents.

Citing the recent Meadow Homes Park Bike Rodeo hosted by his department, Bustillos said the overwhelming response from residents was wanting to see more robust police action and presence in their neighborhoods to make them feel safer.

So if having an eye in the sky can help accomplish that goal, the department is willing to give drones a try.