Among the weapons authorities say Las Vegas mass shooter Stephen Paddock used to kill 59 people Sunday night was an AR-15-type assault rifle legally converted to spit out automatic gunfire and able to hold as many as 100 rounds.
He was perched on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino and had a clear shot at fleeing concertgoers who were attending the Route 91 Harvest festival across the street, police said. There's little anyone could do to prevent the nine-minute assault, which injured up to 527 people, authorities said.
But one Southern California professor says the tragedy should reopen the debate about how drones can be used to make mass gatherings like Sunday's concert in Vegas safer. “You could use drones for surveillance but also to neutralize an assailant,” says Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor and director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino.
“You could have a drone up in two minutes in Las Vegas and fired an incendiary device into [Paddock's] room,” he says. “If he had weapons of mass destruction, you're going to wish you had a drone.”
The professor is not necessarily guaranteeing a drone could have saved the day. He's arguing that authorities shouldn't rule out new technology for fighting this kind of crime. “It is not for me to say how effective a drone would have been in Las Vegas,” Levin says. “The question is for the next situation.”
And the professor noted that similar technology was used when Dallas police used a robot and a pound of C-4 explosive to kill Micah Xavier Johnson, who went on a shooting spree against cops last year that ended with five officers dead.
The Los Angeles Police Commission on Tuesday approved guidelines for testing drone use at the department. Those rules, which still need to be finalized after further public input, wouldn't involve “weaponized” drones or quotidian crowd surveillance. They would allow the devices to be used for SWAT situations, hazmat calls and bomb threats. The responses would have to be approved case by case.
Steve Soboroff, president of the commission, says it's not likely he would support anything other than what the body approved Tuesday. “They will never be armed and they will never be used for surveillance,” he says.
“I can't imagine a drone could have stopped [the Vegas shooting] any faster,” he says.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission has recommended that department end its own drone program. Civil liberties organizations, including the ACLU and Drone-Free LASD/No Drones L.A.! have been vocal against drone programs at both departments, saying the devices could be used by cops to spy on critics and put innocents under the microscope without due process.
“Misuse is a significant risk,” Levin says. “This is something we have to contend with. But by the same token, drones' utility at a time of heightened mass attacks must be considered. We can't sit on our hands and ignore fatal events.”
Paul Wertheimer, a concert security veteran who owns L.A.'s Crowd Management Strategies, says the drone “is a tool that could be important.” But, he says, “It's not the panacea.”
Perhaps the L.A. venue that most resembles Las Vegas Village, where Route 91 took place over the weekend, is the publicly owned Grand Park downtown, which has been used for music festivals and for New Year's Eve celebrations. The 50,000-capacity green space is surrounded by tall buildings.
We reached out to speak about possible drone usage and other security measures in the wake of Las Vegas. Here's the response of the Music Center, which runs the facility for taxpayers:
For major events in Grand Park, such as the New Year’s Eve celebration, the Music Center works collaboratively with all law enforcement agencies. Given the size of this event, and the importance the Music Center places on safety and security, all guests are subject to bag checks and magnetometer wanding as they enter the event. The security team ensures no one is allowed to enter the event with any prohibited items, which are posted on both the Grand Park and Music Center websites. All event entrances are monitored closely by members of the security team.
In addition, the Music Center security team continually monitors and responds to any credible threats and adjusts this plan as needed.