Beverly Hills police add another 'eye in the sky' with expanded drone program

An aerial view of a Beverly Hills landscape from police drone
A view of a Beverly Hills landscape from the police drone "Hawkeye," which provides aerial support for Beverly Hills Police Department patrols on the ground. (Beverly Hills Police Depeartment)

The 911 caller reported seeing a man wrestle a woman to the ground in an attempt to rob her before taking off on a bicycle. Beverly Hills police responded, but before a patrol car could get to the scene, officers already had their eyes on the suspect.

The police recently added a new drone known as "Hawkeye" to its drone patrol that will give officers a view of crime scenes before they arrive, locate suspects before they're lost, and help patrol the streets of the upscale community. The drone's high-resolution camera is capable of reading a license plate a half-mile away.

The city's police department introduced Hawkeye to the city on Tuesday in a set of social media posts that included video of the drone in action. The department has been using drones in various capacities since December 2021. In the last year, the city has seen a surge in smash-and-grab robberies in its downtown district.

In a video posted by the department on Instagram, officers are given the description and location of a dine-and-dash suspect as the drone feeds live video hovering over the Beverly Drive restaurant. In another, the drone appears to follow a man in an alley after police received a call from a resident reporting a man "doing some odd, bizarre stuff." Video shows officers taking the man into custody for disturbing the peace.

The new camera-equipped drone is part of the department's "Real Time Watch Center," a program in which the department uses live video from cameras placed around the city (a program known as Milestone), automatic license plate readers and other drones. The Hawkeye drone then feeds real-time video to officers on the ground.

"I've been on the job for 28 years," Lt. Robert Maycott said in the video. "We didn't have what I call now the 3D incident command space, which allows us to use drones, Milestone, and other technology to enhance the officers' operational ability."

Police have used cameras fixed in spots around the city for years, but the new drones come equipped with better lenses capable of providing sharper images at longer distances.

The system, approved by the City Council in April, has cost $498,000, and city officials have already approved more than $2.4 million for the 2022-23 fiscal year to continue and expand the program.

The city report does not detail how many drones the Police Department currently has in operation, but it says the drone program carries an annual cost of about $450,000

Police officials did not immediately respond to questions about the program.

In a briefing to the Beverly Hills City Council on Nov. 1, Police Chief Mark Stainbrook credited the "Real Time Watch Center" with a 34% decrease in crime that the city has seen between June, when the program was launched, and September.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are one of the newest technological tools used by police departments across the country. The tiny aircraft have become even more sought after since improved cameras have allowed them to be equipped with sophisticated zoom capabilities and crisper images.

Hawkeye, for example, has infrared capability and can zoom in on a license plate about half a mile away, Stainbrook said.

But the rapid adoption of these tools has also raised privacy concerns about how the technology is being used. In multiple cities across the country, for example, police departments deployed drones to do surveillance on protests that erupted after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for digital privacy and monitors the expansion of technologies used by law enforcement, about 1,202 law enforcement agencies across the country have employed drones in their arsenals.

The Los Angeles Police Department made drones a permanent part of the force in September 2019. They are also used by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Burbank Police Department.

Hawkeye, Stainbrook said, is being launched daily now, and numbers from the city show police have been using the drone frequently on a variety of calls.

Between January and October of this year, the chief said, the drone did 2,384 flights, including responding to 1,283 calls from the police radio. About 674 times during that period, the drone arrived on scene before police officers.

The drone was also used 317 times to keep an eye above traffic stops initiated across the city. Police also said drones have been used to "fly in pattern" across the city to look for suspicious activity.

"The drone has really been an effective tool, sort of an immediate air support if you will," Stainbrook said at the Nov. 1 briefing.

Initially, the drone was set to fly exclusively over the city's Business Triangle, but police have expanded the area to much of the city.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.