State law sharply limits how law enforcement agencies in Virginia can use drones, but that hasn’t dissuaded the Petersburg Bureau of Police from acquiring a small fleet of the unmanned aircraft for their operations.
Last Wednesday, Petersburg Police Chief Kenneth Miller used his Twitter account to announce his department had acquired three new drones “to tackle crime and keep the community safe.”
“We now have 4 drones to use in the city,” Miller tweeted.
That’s four more drones than all the other Richmond-area police departments combined.
Police in Richmond, Colonial Heights, Hopewell and the counties of Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover have yet to acquire or use a drone, but several are assessing the flying machines and weighing their options.
“We are taking a look at them, but no decision has yet been made,” Richmond police spokesman Gene Lepley said in an email.
Yet several other local public safety agencies are embracing the technology. Richmond Fire & EMS, the Henrico Division of Fire and the Chesterfield Sheriff’s Office have acquired one or more of the unmanned aircraft vehicles, or UAVs, and are developing their own drone programs. The aircraft, however, have not yet been used in operations.
Petersburg police acquired a drone several years before Miller officially took office last July, “but it wasn’t being utilized,” he said.
So Miller put it to use and, on Wednesday, the department acquired three additional Go Pro Karma drones in exchange for several leftover Go Pro police body cameras the department purchased but weren’t using, said Maj. Brian Braswell.
Several officers have been certified to pilot the vehicles.
Miller said the drones are being used in conjunction with some department operations, such as searching for lost or missing people and taking aerial photos of vehicle accident locations and crime scenes – after the incidents occurred.
“If we had a robbery at the 7-Eleven and we want an overview of the 7-Eleven after the fact, then that’s what we would use it for – to kind of scope out with an aerial photo of an old crime scene,” Braswell explained.
The department has not yet used the drones in a criminal investigation, Braswell said, which by law would require police to obtain a warrant.
“It’s a tool that we enjoy using without infringing on people’s rights,” Miller said.
After a two-year state moratorium on police use of drones, the General Assembly in 2015 passed legislation that then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed into law that strictly regulates how law enforcement agencies can use the aircraft. The statue requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant to use a drone in criminal investigations, a measure that privacy advocates, including the ACLU, fought for during the legislative process.
But law makers included provisions that allow the deployment of drones without a warrant if they are used in Amber Alerts for abducted children, Senior Alerts for missing elderly residents and Blue Alerts for suspects involving the death or serious injury of a law-enforcement officer has not been apprehended and may be a serious threat to the public. Warrant-less use of drones are also allowed in cases deemed necessary to “alleviate an immediate danger to any person.”
Warrants also are not required when drones are used for purposes other than law enforcement, such as assessing damage, traffic or flooding from the air.
The General Assembly currently is considering bills that would expand police use of drones without a warrant while conducting traffic crash investigations.
Miller noted that the department’s drone was used to help Petersburg fire officials assess the remains of the High Street Lofts after a massive fire destroyed two buildings of the development Jan. 16.
“We were able to give the fire chief some views that otherwise couldn’t be seen – bringing (the drone) into the structure that maybe was not safe for humans to go into,” Miller said.
There’s no official count of the number of law enforcement agencies in Virginia using drones.
But an April 2017 report by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College listed only nine police, sheriff, fire and emergency agencies that had deployed the aircraft in Virginia between 2009 and 2017. The center said at least 347 state and local public agencies across the U.S. had acquired drones during that period.
Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said Virginia’s drone law may be an inhibiting factor for some law enforcement agencies but the expense of buying and maintaining the aircraft is probably the biggest reason why more departments haven’t acquired them.
“Our folks are bleeding in terms of having the resources to even do basic law enforcement,” Schrad said, noting the difficulty that most agencies are now having in retaining personnel.
“Once they get past hiring and training, and basic equipment, and fueling their cars, they don’t have a lot of budget left over for (drones), no matter how much they’d like to have one,” she said.
Schrad said Virginia’s drone law is a “little bit inhibiting … but it doesn’t say you can’t use them, you just got to get a warrant. And it’s pretty clear from the statute that it was not meant to tie the hands of all uses of drones, because there are a lot of non-law enforcement purposes that localities can utilize drones for.”
The Chesterfield Sheriff’s Office last April bought a drone for use by its new search and rescue team. The drone, which hasn’t yet been deployed in an operation, will be used to provide team members an aerial view of a search and rescue location.
The team is in the process of acquiring a second drone that can also drop or deliver items, such as handheld radios, blankets, water and food, said Sheriff Karl Leonard.
The Richmond Fire Department purchased a set of three drones last year but officials are still weighing how they will be used in search and rescue operations, said Capt. Keith Vida. The department is looking to use drones in conjunction with operations on the James River, among other uses, Vida said.
The Henrico Division of Fire purchased a drone early last year for training purposes and the certification of eight firefighters as remote pilots, said Lt. Michael Roth. The department is in the process of forming a drone program, and through grant funding plans to eventually acquire several more aircraft for specific uses, he said.
Chesterfield Fire & EMS does not yet have a drone but has several qualified pilots and hopes to establish an operational program within the next few years, said Lt. Jason Elmore.
In a dramatic use of drones last December, the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office deployed two of the aircraft to help de-escalate an hours-long standoff with a distraught woman who was waiving a gun in the parking lot of a Walmart, cursing deputies and demanding they shoot her, according to news accounts.
Instead of rushing into a potentially deadly encounter, police flew two drones to monitor the woman from a safe distance and get close-up views of her movements and what was in her car. The drone pilots could tell officers when the woman had her finger on the trigger of her gun, as well as her condition at various stages of the incident. She was eventually arrested without harm. [Click for More]