Take a walk down Main Street in Chula Vista and you just might hear the faint buzzing overhead of a drone passing by. From four corners of the city, drone pilots hired by Chula Vista Police Department camp out on roof tops under a shady tent waiting for the call to launch.
Down inside the police station, an officer is watching a variety of lit-up screens. One includes a map of the city and another is live-streaming footage the drone captures in its flight path, zooming in close enough to see what people are doing from hundreds of feet above.
This is Chula Vista Police Department’s drone program, the first in the country to receive Federal Aviation Administration approval to go where no cop has gone before. Police have been given permission to fly drones through the entire city as part of their effort to turn unmanned aerial vehicles into first responders.
This new model of policing is now expanding into cities across the country thanks in large part to Chula Vista’s PR prowess and connections in law enforcement.
The program has received a considerable amount of attention internationally — a British film crew is interested in making a documentary about Chula Vista’s drones and a representative from the Tokyo Police Department recently spent two days shadowing officers in the program.
Over the years, Chula Vista has been stymied in its attempts to stand out in the greater Southern California region. Last year, the city vied to be the home of a new CSU campus and in 2017 threw itself into the running for a new Amazon headquarters.
Then and now, publicity and respectability were among the goals. For a long time, the city has sought to position itself as forward-thinking and technologically advanced, more than a mere bedroom community in the shadows of San Diego.
These days, the Police Department is reveling in the attention brought by its drone program, and has opened its doors to any and all who want a peak.
But it has also invited the scrutiny.
Early into the pandemic, the city pushed back against a flurry of articles suggesting that the broadcasting of public announcements to homeless encampments via drones was verging on a police state.
With the help of a PR firm a couple years ago, Chula Vista managed to get on CNN’s radar. When the story got temporarily delayed in 2018, one police official noted in an email obtained by Voice of San Diego: “Its [sic] an unfortunate setback but one we can overcome by clearly demonstrating the usefulness and practicality of the technology. I think if we get some compelling footage or demonstration scenarios + White House interest, we can get national press interest again.”
Other communications show officials in Chula Vista and San Diego sniping at one another over control of media narratives.
In the end, all of those articles have bolstered Chula Vista’s reach and reputation, elevating its Police Department into the role of global consultant. Members of the original team that launched the program now work for companies that help integrate drones into other cities and market their products.
The mastermind behind Chula Vista’s drone program, retired Capt. William “Fritz” Reber, is the head of public safety integration at Skydio, a drone company started by MIT grad students. Reber said he was offered a job at Skydio while continuing to help with Chula Vista’s drone program after he retired.
“They said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna sell these drones to police officers. Would you being willing to work with us as a consultant and go with our sales team so you sort of talk cop talk and speak the language and build the bridge between the consumer and the producer?” Reber recalled.
Retiring from the police force in 2018 has not stopped Reber from using his former department as an “incubator” to expand drone programs to police departments across the country.
Emails obtained by Forbes through a Freedom of Information Act request show hundreds of exchanges between Reber and Chula Vista Police Department officials coordinating tours of the drone program and drafting federal waivers to expand drone use. A self-proclaimed “influencer in the public safety space,” Reber joined the team at Skydio a year after leaving Chula Vista. Now, Reber’s job is to sell Skydio drones to police departments around the country, and he does that in part by leveraging his ties to Chula Vista.
Skydio gifted Chula Vista with four of its newer model drones in 2019 as part of a Federal Aviation Administration collaboration to integrate drone use in government agencies. Then in 2020, as part of a COVID-19 emergency response program, the company gave nearly 100 drones to various public safety agencies.
“Chula Vista has not spent one dime on anything related to Skydio,” Reber said, but the company asks for feedback in return about how Skydio’s drones stand up to competitors. It’s the type of relationship Skydio wants to have with other police departments as well, with the explicit goal of improving the company’s products.
“The fact that I came from CVPD and had so much history there just meant that was the lowest barrier to entry to get them on board,” Reber said.
In March 2020, Reber was working with then-Capt. Vern Sallee to draft a waiver that would allow the Chula Vista Police Department to fly drones out of human eyesight using Skydio drones. In one email, Reber explained that the draft waiver should be generic enough that other departments could easily replicate the approval process with the Federal Aviation Administration.
“Our goal isn’t to just get CVPD approved, as you already are, the goal is to get a format that gets approved that other agencies can replicate. The more data specific to CVPD the more excuses the FAA has to deny other submissions based upon differences, not in operational factors, or hardware factors, but due to factors related to the agency submitted in,” Reber wrote to Sallee.
Sallee has since retired from the department and is now working for a drone company, Axon.
Sallee declined to comment for this story, but Axon and Skydio recently announced a partnership to “offer Skydio’s world-leading autonomous drones to law enforcement and emergency responders via Axon’s unmanned aircraft program, Axon Air,” according to a press release on Skydio’s website.
In an interview with VOSD, Reber said coordinating tours of the drone program at Chula Vista Police Department and keeping close tabs with his contacts there is meant to expand the concept of using drones as first responder, not necessarily to promote Skydio, but he admits he’s walking a fine line.
“We want to make sure we are doing things right, but we also are unabashedly wanting to advance the industry. Certainly having something that pays the bills while you’re doing it helps,” Reber said.
Don Redmond, the captain at the Chula Vista Police Department who now runs the program, said when Reber brings police departments to tour Chula Vista’s drone program, “he’s just helping bridge that gap for other agencies to kind of see what [the drone as first responder model] is all about.”
“He’s not doing it from a sales perspective. At least when he’s with us, there’s no sales pitch, there’s no nothing,” Redmond said.
Redmond estimates that the department has given “easily over 100” tours to law enforcement, schools, first responders, tech vendors, media and more, many looking to develop their own drone programs.
“It’s kind of like somebody saying, ‘Help us build a new kitchen.’ Right, we’re like, ‘OK, well what’s your budget? What kind of kitchen do you want? What do you intend to do with the kitchen?’” Redmond said.
But while Chula Vista has touted itself as a trailblazer in smart policing, community groups and privacy advocates have pushed back against the use of surveillance technology that they say has crossed the line.
“We’re talking about people’s lives here. We’re talking about situations where someone could get shot by a police officer or somebody could get arrested and spend years of their life behind bars. That is not so light and fanciful as swapping out your bar counters in your kitchen,” said Dave Maass, director of investigations at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy nonprofit.
Maass said this kind of relationship between law enforcement officials and private tech companies is not unique to Chula Vista but should raise concern for the community.
“We’ve seen this happen before … law enforcement officers crossing that line where it is unclear whether the program they’ve been promoting is actually beneficial for the community or is actually beneficial for their either personal interests or for the company that sells the technology,” Maass said. “And that should be a huge red flag for the city of Chula Vista and the people that live there.”
Norell Martinez has lived in Chula Vista her entire life. Her parents moved here from Tijuana when she was 1 and about a decade ago, she bought her own home in Chula Vista. Then last year, she started seeing drones flying over her backyard.
“I didn’t learn about the program through an article or an announcement necessarily from the city. I just started to see drones in my community, in my backyard, and that’s when I was like, ‘Woah, OK there’s drones here. The police are flying drones,’” Martinez said.
Martinez said she lives close to the police station and is concerned for her family’s privacy.
Redmond, the captain running the drone program, said he heard from a handful of residents concerned about drones encroaching on their privacy, but once he explained the program to them and how a drone’s flight path might cover someone’s property, the concerns were abated, he said.
But Martinez said there are also bigger issues at play.
Chula Vista’s positioning as a border town cannot be divorced from the city’s trend of increasing police surveillance technology (the City Council affirmed its support for license plate readers last month), she said. She’s convinced the drone program will be especially harmful to communities of color. And the fact that the department claims footage captured by the drones is inaccessible to the public raises even more concerns for accountability.
According to the department’s website, photos and videos captured by drones “are considered part of the investigative record and are not available to the public under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) or Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).”
Chula Vista Police Department drones capture and record video along their entire flight path, which is then stored as evidence for at least a year and removed at the department’s discretion. The drones are deployed around 20 times a day for all types of service calls –– from locating a suspect on the run to corralling escaped chickens at the local elementary school.
But Chula Vista should consider whether drones are an appropriate solution to the public safety interests of the community, Maass said.
When surveillance technology was more expensive, it created a check on police departments’ use of pricey gadgets like helicopters. Now that drone technology is getting cheaper and more competitive, cities will need another check against police departments’ use of drones, Maass said.
“Otherwise, we’re gonna end up in a period a few years from where now people in Chula Vista can’t go outside without being captured on camera by a drone,” Maass said.