The Los Angeles Police Department used a drone for the first time during a standoff last week between SWAT officers and a robbery suspect in Koreatown.
LAPD Chief Michel Moore said Tuesday the drone was used to give officers a view inside a second-story apartment in the 300 block of Berendo Street, where police believed the suspect was hiding during the Jan. 9 standoff.
The drone allowed SWAT officers to “safely approach the location knowing the suspect was not lying in wait,” said Deputy Chief Horace Frank, who commands the department’s counter-terrorism, bomb squad, and other special units.
The standoff, which unfolded over nine hours in a busy section of Koreatown near 3rd Street and Vermont Avenue, ended after police found the suspect in the apartment building’s attic.
Moore said police approached the residence at around 4:30 a.m. A woman who answered the door closed it behind her and told officers the man they were looking for was not home.
But Moore said officers had reason to believe their suspect was inside.
They attempted to contact the man, but were unsuccessful.
Tear gas was used at some point during the standoff. Still the man refused to come out.
About seven hours into the incident, officers requested the drone. Frank received the call and approved using the device. “It was an easy decision for me to make.”
However, concerns from members of the public about police use of drones — or “small umanned aerial systems,” as law enforcement agencies prefer to call them — made the decision a fraught one for LAPD.
The department has come under criticism from privacy activists wary of giving police more surveillance tools.
At LAPD’s headquarters on Tuesday, police commission President Steve Soboroff said officials wanted to stress that they were moving toward adopting the devices in a deliberate way.
He said that’s why LAPD has taken this long to use one of the department’s three drones for the first time, more than one year after the commission approved their purchase.
The use of the drone on Jan. 9 was part of LAPD’s pilot program to test the devices. Soboroff said the commission will review the incident at the program’s six-month mark.
But he also said Tuesday that the approval of the drone to be used in the standoff “went over the high hurdles” the commission put in place to limit the program to special circumstances.
Frank said the situations LAPD was allowed to use the drone during the pilot program included the inspection of possible explosive devices and certain situations involved armed suspects.
Moore said Tuesday police believe the suspect was responsible for a previous armed robbery. Officials did not identify him. But police did not find a weapon inside the apartment, Frank said.
LAPD published video footage captured by the drone to its Youtube channel on Tuesday.
The video shows police firing a projectile at the second-story window to break it. The drone hovers outside the window, showing the inside of the apartment.
Police were not able to see where the suspect was from the drone’s footage. They eventually discovered he went up into the apartment’s attic area, where Frank said he had access to other units.
Frank said not knowing the location of a possibly armed suspect can be one of the most dangerous situations for police preparing to enter a building.
“That’s one of the most critical times,” he said. “So I had no problem at all making the decision.”