LAPD Deploys UAS for First Time

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The Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT) of the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) Metropolitan Division recently deployed its unmanned aircraft system (UAS) for the first time. The operation occurred during a barricade incident involving a robbery suspect.

On Dec. 13, 2018, at around 9:40 p.m., three suspects were involved in the armed robbery of a convenience store in the 4900 block of Santa Monica Blvd. During the robbery, two of the suspects entered the location, one armed with a firearm, and demanded that the clerk open the register. The suspects took money from the register and fled in a car where the third suspect was waiting. Through the course of the investigation, Northeast Area detectives identified the suspects involved in the robbery. Two of the suspects were arrested by detectives, but the third suspect was not captured. The search for the third suspect continued into January of this year.

On Jan. 9 at around 5:45 a.m., Metropolitan Division police officers who were in the area looking for the third suspect went to an apartment in the 300 block of North Berendo St. They knocked on the door, and a female came out of the apartment to meet them. She closed and locked the door behind her.

The officers and detectives at the scene were using investigative techniques that led them to have a strong belief that the suspect was inside the apartment. Because of the suspect’s refusal to exit and the notion that the suspect could be armed with a firearm, SWAT was requested to the location around 8:30 a.m.

The stand-off with the suspect lasted approximately nine hours. During that time, the LAPD’s specialized sUAS pilot (a SWAT officer) used a DJI Spark drone to find the suspect, who was hiding in a second-floor apartment. During that time, SWAT used various types of communication strategies, tear gas and, ultimately, the drone.

According to the LAPD, this was the first time a sUAS was used since the approval of its pilot program. In this incident, the drone was used after the tear gas was ineffective in flushing out the suspect. The sUAS was flown outside of the windows of the suspect’s apartment, but the suspect was not seen with the sUAS. After several hours, the suspect who had been hiding in the attic space of his apartment was located and taken into custody by officers without any further incident.

During the operation of the aircraft, the officers captured video footage, which has been made available to the public (see video below) as a commitment to transparency and constitutional policing, the department says. The ability to use a sUAS in certain situations is an important tool for SWAT and allows officers to gather critical information that can mitigate high-risk situations, notes the LAPD.

In July 2018, the LAPD began a pilot program that would allow the department to use drones with a goal of de-escalating dangerous situations. The aircraft are being used in limited circumstances and under strict guidelines that consider community concerns and privacy interests, the LAPD says. For accountability, the drones are used only by a team of officers with specific training and with prior approval from a command staff officer, as well as the commanding officer of counter-terrorism and special operations bureau.

This deployment was a long time coming: Back in 2014, two Draganflyer UAS were gifted to the LAPD from the Seattle Police Department. The public voiced their concerns with the new technology, including by forming an anti-drone group, which said at the time that drones represented a “militarization of local law enforcement” and would “exacerbate the flagrant violation of privacy rights” of citizens. The federal Office of the Inspector General later announced it would be holding onto the LAPD’s drones until policies on their usage took shape.

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