Drone as a First Responder program provides crucial intel to Santa Monica Police Department

At top speed, the drone can travel from one end of Santa Monica to the other in under two minutes.

Phillip Palmer Image
Friday, July 15, 2022
Drones provide crucial intel to Santa Monica police
The Drone as a First Responder program provides crucial intel to the Santa Monica Police Department when responding to 911 calls.

SANTA MONICA, Calif. (KABC) -- The crime fighter of the future is a high-flying eye in the sky that goes where choppers and officers cannot.

A call to 911 can often create an intense environment for police.

In many cases, important details are unknown to responding officers.

Hoping to de-escalate many of those interactions, the Santa Monica Police Department has turned to the sky with its Drone as a First Responder program, or DFR program.

"I would say over 90% of the calls we respond to with the drone, the drone is there first. Sometimes by a considerable margin just because of downtown traffic, units are tied up whatever it may be," said Peter Lashley, drone pilot and Santa Monica Police Officer.

At top speed, the drone can travel from one end of Santa Monica to the other in under two minutes, but the real benefit is once it gets to the scene it helps officers see around corners.

Officer Lashley has been with Santa Monica PD for 18 years and used his patrol experience while operating the drone for the department after a 911 caller reported a teenager holding a gun in the middle of the street.

"As soon as I saw two [guns], it definitely escalated," said Lashley when describing a drone video showing teens holding guns.

The drone found the teens before officers arrived and Lashley relayed critical information.

"Just the mechanical, the way they were manipulating it, I had very good reason to believe that the ones I was seeing were not live firearms, that they were CO2 or some type of BB type gun," said Lashley.

Officers found the teens, who now face charges, but they might be alive because officers were better informed.

MORE: Be Well OC Mobile response teams take mental health care to those who need it across Orange County

People suffering a mental health crisis are often seen walking the streets here in Southern California. Now, local communities have launched a program that takes mental heath care to those who need it.

"We were able to deescalate a situation, keep our community safe, keep our officers safe and at the same time, do what's right for our community," said Captain Saul Rodriguez.

The DFR program was launched in November 2021.

Each drone is equipped with a high-end camera and costs roughly $12,000.

Officer Lashley works in an office with scanners, radios and a big screen TV, but because a pilot must have eyes on the drone at all times, a civilian licensed pilot is on the roof, with the ability to take control if necessary.

In most cases, a suspect doesn't even know the drone is overhead.

"It's very different from the typical police pilot because they're loud, right? This is very different where they can go there rather discreetly. The zoom lens on the camera is amazing, so that gives them the ability to be monitoring stuff from a very far distance," Rodriguez said.

It's possible the program will expand to cover the Wilshire corridor toward the eastern edge of the city.

If the staff is increased, the drone could also fly seven days a week, instead of just four.