Police Promise They Aren't Using Drones To Spy On Poor People

Gif: DJI
Gif: DJI

Police drones patrolling the skies over a city might sound like the premise of an upcoming dystopic sci-fi streaming series, but it’s already a reality. Wired investigated how the Chula Vista Police Department deploys its fleet of 32 drones in its Drone as First Responder (DFR) program. The flight data and eyewitness accounts illustrate how the city halfway between San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico is unevenly policed with increasingly invasive technology.

The DFR program operates as the name implies; dispatchers decide during 911 calls to send a drone from headquarters before an officer. The department first began using drones in 2018, and it has just escalated from there. The FAA approved “beyond visual line of sight” flights within a three-mile radius in 2019. The distance limitation was lifted in 2021. Wired explains how city-wide drone coverage has impacted Chula Vista:

In Chula Vista, drone flight paths trace a map of the city’s inequality, with poorer residents experiencing far more exposure to the drones’ cameras and rotors than their wealthier counterparts, a WIRED analysis of nearly 10,000 drone flight records from July 2021 to September 2023 found. The drones, often dispatched for serious incidents like reports of armed individuals, are also routinely deployed for minor issues such as shoplifting, vandalism, and loud music. Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, the city even used drones to broadcast public service announcements to homeless encampments.

Despite the police promoting the benefits of the DFR program, residents who encounter the technology day-to-day report feeling constantly watched. Some say they are afraid to spend time in their backyards; they fear that the machines are following them down the street, spying on them while they use the public pool or change their clothes. One resident says that he was so worried that the drones were harassing him that he went to the emergency room for severe depression and exhaustion.


While the Chula Vista Police Department discloses every drone flight made, roughly 10 percent of flights are done without a listed purpose or connection to a 911 call. Be sure to read the entire feature at Wired to learn more about how CVPD’s drone program could impact the future of policing across the country.

For the latest news, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.