The coronavirus is a threat to everyone, but the homeless population is particularly at risk. They often survive outdoors and do not have regular access to health care, sinks to wash their hands, protective masks and gloves, or internet and electricity to get updates about the pandemic or local social distancing orders.
Law enforcement is dedicated to protecting these vulnerable people, but social distancing and stay-in-place orders have made that difficult. In response, some departments have made use of an interesting tool: drones.
The idea is to equip drones with live cameras and loudspeakers and fly them into homeless encampments that are often in difficult-to-access areas. This allows officers to monitor and communicate with the homeless without going against the CDC’s social distancing guidelines.
The concept is catching on. Departments in Maryland, Texas and California have used drones to directly engage with homeless groups in their area. Other departments in Georgia, Florida and Hawaii have used drones to broadcast messages across parks and beaches, where homeless people often live or congregate, proving updates with the latest information about stay-in-place orders.
Drones are nothing new to police; they’ve been in use for years. But there’s arguably never been a greater need for remote patrolling, so departments across the country have been acquiring more of the devices and using them whenever possible.
“Since the pandemic, we’ve seen brand-new law enforcement customers email us asking for drones to be delivered in days or hours,” Spencer Gore, the CEO of Impossible Aerospace, a drone company that specializes in unmanned aircraft for law enforcement, told NBC News.
The Calvert County Sheriff’s Office in Maryland is one of the departments that has been stocking up on drones. Their stock was donated by DJI, a China-based company that is the largest consumer drone maker in the world, as part of the company’s “Disaster Relief Program.” DJI recently announced that it would give away drones to first responders and law enforcement agencies to help them “mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The company’s website recommends that the drones be used for “homeless camp evaluations,” and it has also suggested that thermal cameras could be attached to the drones to measure body temperature or spray public areas with disinfectant. However, NBC News reported that none of the departments they spoke with have used drones for those purposes.
“When we talk about the uses the public safety agencies have found in the coronavirus era for drones, it’s ideas that have come from the departments themselves,” Adam Lisberg, a spokesman for DJI, told NBC News.
In April, DJI said it had provided 100 drones to 45 public safety agencies in 22 states. Of those 45 agencies, 22 were police departments. A map on DJI’s website showed that most of the drones the company has provided for pandemic relief are in California.
The Chula Vista P.D. in Southern California received three of the drones from DJI, adding them to the 10 drones the department already owned before the coronavirus crisis began, Captain Vern Salle told NBC News. The department first started using them to reach out to homeless populations in mid-April.
“Ninety-nine percent of all our outreach is face to face. Drones are not our first choice, they’re our last choice in this type of outreach service,” Salle said before emphasizing how difficult it is to get to many of the encampments they’re trying to reach.
The San Pablo P.D. in the Bay Area is a client of Impossible Aerospace, and officers there also have to deal with hard-to-reach encampments. Captain Brian Bubar told NBC News that some encampments span hillsides that can take up to half a day to visit on foot. Drones can get there much more quickly and more efficiently.
Officials from both Chula Vista and San Pablo told NBC News that the drones were being used to share public health information, not to enforce shelter-in-place requirements.
While departments across the country have seen the benefits of using drones, their use has been met with some pushback. Anti-surveillance advocates and civil liberties watchdogs have voiced concerns about the general concept of flying robots equipped with cameras. Homelessness researchers and advocates have warned that using drones might do more harm than good.
“The appropriate outreach to folks who are on the streets or unhoused if you’re trying to get them resources is through some kind of social service program that has outreach workers that are specifically trained on how to respond to people going through trauma,” Megan Hustings, the managing director for the National Coalition for the Homeless, told NBC News.
Advocates have said most homeless people do not want to interact with or accept help from police. Many have experienced raids of their encampments or seen other people get arrested or harassed, which has made them distrustful of law enforcement. Advocates say using drones to conduct surveillance and communicate will make that distrust worse.
“People that are living out in encampments are already distrustful of the government,” Carolyn Johnson, a managing attorney for the Maryland-based Homeless Persons Representation Project, told NBC News. “So yelling at people through a flying police robot doesn’t strike me as the best way to communicate and build trust to help folks.”
However, some of the departments making use of the drones have made a concerted effort to break down those barriers. Officer Daniel Segura with the Fort Worth P.D. in Texas told NBC News that he and his fellow officers have worked hard to build trust with the homeless community in their area. He said the police warned unhoused people beforehand that the police would start using drones to help with patrols due to the coronavirus.
“The officers told them about the drones and explained how every now and then you’ll have drones flying over you and don’t get scared,” Segura said. “The reason why is some people have mental illness, so seeing something flying and speaking to you can scare them.”
While the situation isn’t perfect, departments are trying their best to keep vulnerable populations informed and protected during this pandemic.