Fairfield police use drones to monitor social distancing at beaches, parks
FAIRFIELD — Residents venturing out to beaches and parks might hear a whirring sound above their heads.
The Fairfield Police Department has been using a drone to monitor people at the recently reopened public spaces to ensure they are still social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, Cpt. Robert Kalamaras said. But, he said, that is not the only thing drones were used for over the weekend.
“(The drone) was deployed to observe social distancing and provide guidance for deployment resources in the public beach area,” Kalamaras said. “We also had a complaint of juveniles on the Sherman Elementary School roof. We were able to identify and warn them.”
Drone usage by town police is not new.
Previously, the department has used a drone to locate missing persons and monitor traffic during large scale shutdowns on state highways and parkways, Kalamaras said. He said they have also been training with it to deploy flotation devices to swimmers in distress as part of rescue operations.
“We have only used them in a reactionary capacity,” the police captain said, adding they currently have one licensed drone operator with two more in training.
Drones recently became a contentious issue in neighboring Westport, where police planned to launch a pilot program to use the technology to monitor residents during the pandemic.
In a partnership with Draganfly, a health care data service, and the University of South Australia, the town planned to use drones with software that takes biometric readings “to understand population patterns and allows quicker reaction time to ongoing events or potential health threats,” Police Chief Foti Koskinas said at the time.
The Westport proposal was met with strong push back from citizens and the American Civil Liberties Union.
David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said the organization has been monitoring the use of technology during the pandemic by the government and law enforcement.
“What we are concerned about is the use of any advanced technology, such as drones, by police with the potential of criminal sanctions to enforce (coronavirus guidelines),” McGuire said.
The director said public health experts and civil liberties groups have made it clear that the government should seek voluntary compliance with COVID-19 safety measures and not utilize criminal penalties to enforce them.
“It’s really important that people see the authorities as a group that they trust and want to comply with,” he said. “We are very lucky here in Connecticut to see wide-scale compliance with COVID-19 executive orders, for example.”
Westport quickly scrapped its plan, with Koskinas and First Selectman Jim Marpe saying the program was “not well-received.”
McGuire said his organization recommends that, when considering the use of similar technology, municipalities have meaningful conversations with the people who live and work there to help them understand the reasoning behind the decision. He said that never happened in Westport in a meaningful way.
The biggest red flag for the ACLU, McGuire said, is when the use of technology can lead to arrests.
“We have no suspicion that they are doing that yet in Fairfield,” McGuire said. “But, we would caution strongly against that and call for an approach where there’s education and, ultimately, with that comes wide scale compliance.”
Kalamaras said his department’s usage of drone technology is different from Westport’s program, pointing to the neighboring town’s plan to collect data on individuals, such as their temperature, to enforce social distancing.
Fairfield’s use of the drone, Kalamaras said, is similar to how they would use a helicopter, provided they were not so expensive to purchase and operate.
“We can use drones for observational purposes and other things — like dropping a life preserver to a swimmer in distress,” he said.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said Fairfield police had two licensed drone operators. They have one licensed drone operator and two more in training.