Thermal-imaging drone footage of police response to shooting at homeless camp raises privacy concerns


It’s the type of footage never before seen from the Vancouver Police Department’s SkyRanger drone — thermal imaging captured from the air above a police incident.

In this case, the incident was a December 2019 shooting at Oppenheimer Park, where a community of homeless people had established a large camp.

VPD’s Emergency Response Team can be seen as bright white figures sweeping through the dark park. There’s a leashed police dog, and the unmistakable heat signatures of dozens of rodents scurrying all over the field.

The footage, obtained by CBC News through a freedom of information (FOI) request, shows officers checking tents and entering some of them as they make their way through the park in the hours after the shooting.

But those search tactics have led the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) to raise concerns that camp residents’ right to privacy may have been violated.

An image from a Vancouver police drone equipped with thermal imaging shows officers searching Oppenheimer Park during the police response to a shooting at the park on Dec. 12, 2019. The footage was obtained by CBC News through a freedom of information request. (Vancouver Police Department)

The shooting on Dec. 12 injured a man’s knee, and he was taken to hospital in serious condition. Police later said he was expected to make a full recovery. One person was apprehended and questioned by police, but later released. 

In internal emails, also obtained by CBC News through an FOI request, VPD Supt. Steve Eely offered congratulations for the police response.

“Nice job all around: dealing with an active shooting, locating suspect, clearing for additional victims, addressing advocate concerns; and using the drone to maintain officer safety,” said Eely the morning after the operation.

Another email from the night of the operation offers some context for the deployment.

Uniformed tactical officers inspected tents in Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park after a shooting left one person in serious condition on Dec. 12, 2019. (Shawn Foss/CBC)

Sgt. Wade Rodrigue wrote that from 6:13 p.m. until 8:30 p.m., the SkyRanger drone flew about 45 metres above the park in support of the Emergency Response Team and patrol units clearing the park after the shooting.

Rodrigue attached two images to show how effective the drone’s forward-looking infrared system was in the dark. The drone was still relatively new to the force, having been bought in September.

Const. Thomas Callaghan, who deployed the drone, sent Eely an email with some analysis: “Several tents occupied identified by the hotspots (but majority unoccupied) and hundreds of rats moving around.” 

A side-by-side comparison presented in an internal VPD email shows the difference between a regular camera above Oppenheimer Park at night and the forward-looking infrared system that detects thermal signatures. (VPD)

Privacy concerns

Meghan McDermott, staff lawyer and interim policy director with the BCCLA, questioned why the drone was used to record footage of the tent community. She said courts have considered aerial thermal imaging something that requires a warrant.

“Tents are basically these people’s homes,” she said.

“If it’s a canvas structure or an apartment, either way, we have the same protections for our rights to privacy and we’re protected against unreasonable search and seizure.”

McDermott said in extreme circumstances, where somebody’s life is at risk, or there’s a potential terrorist attack, courts will tolerate law enforcement entering property without a warrant. But she’s not convinced that was the case at Oppenheimer Park.

“It’s completely unclear to me why they’re physically searching tent by tent and not doing the same thing to, say, any of the condos that are nearby,” she said. “I think it’s just a violation of everybody’s rights who were inhabiting that park at that time.”

The BCCLA helped the VPD craft its policy on drone use last year, but McDermott said this was the first such example of footage she had seen from the SkyRanger.

“I was actually quite amazed — the level of detail and what is visible through the police drones,” she said.

Police stopped and patted down residents of the homeless camp after the shooting. (Shawn Foss/CBC)

VPD director of public affairs Simi Heer said in a written statement that the shooting had “presented significant public and officer safety concerns” and that the drone had been used in accordance with VPD policy.

“When exigent circumstances exist that present a threat to human life, police are able to search property to deal with that threat,” she said.

“A critical incident, like an active shooting event in a public place, with one confirmed victim, an unknown suspect, and unknown number of victims, presents exigent circumstances that would allow police to act to prevent further harm.”

McDermott said she’s trying to keep an open mind, but thinks a double standard is at play when it comes to privacy rights.

“I think it’s just another example where we’re seeing the rights of the poor being less valuable than those of us who have our own housing,” she said.

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