Fairfax County Police Department expands drone unit’s work

The Fairfax County Police Department has expanded the scope of its drone program (Photo courtesy FCPD).

The Fairfax County Police Department’s drone unit has taken on new responsibilities and added a full-time drone program manager.

The drone unit now conducts more detailed work with the FCPD’s helicopter program, according to an FCPD news release. Among other tasks, the drone unit complements the helicopter program in crime scene and crash scene investigations, FCPD Second Lieutenant Brad Woehrlen wrote in a statement to FFXnow.

“Longer sustained operations illustrate how the drone program compliments the helicopter; the helicopter will go up initially and be able to more immediately provide input to the officers on the ground, and the drone team will take over to provide situational awareness to the officers and command,” Woehrlen wrote.

FCPD started using drones, also called unmanned aircraft systems, in 2019. Drones have since been involved with tasks including crime scene documentation, crash scene reconstruction and felonious suspect searches, per a public log of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) missions. The full list of permitted use cases for drones is outlined in a program manual.

“In a much longer term, as staffing improves, the vision will include a full-time team that is on the street with the equipment able to respond to calls as they come out,” Woehrlen wrote.

The drone program manager, the unit’s newest addition, trains pilots, works on airspace waivers and updates equipment and software, among other responsibilities.

“Because drones are classified as aircraft by the (Federal Aviation Administration) there is a significant amount of management required, which is part of the reason a full-time position was created,” Woehrlen wrote.

The police department’s use of drones is governed in part by the program manual. Among other policies, drones cannot fly beyond the visual line of sight of their operators and operators must “take all reasonable precautions to avoid inadvertently recording or transmitting images of individuals and areas uninvolved with the mission,” per the manual.

“Reasonable precautions” can include only using the drone’s live transmission rather than recording footage during an operation, according to the manual Drones also cannot be used as weapons.

Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have raised concerns about the privacy implications of drone use by police departments.

Protecting community members’ privacy is “an utmost priority,” Woehrlen wrote. He cited the program manual, directives for the FCPD’s helicopter unit and an additional privacy training that he said drone pilots are required to pass before operating missions or investigations.

“We also currently use software that logs our flight tracking, including the camera angle, which provides oversight of pilot activity and a record for any allegations of inappropriate usage,” Woehrlen wrote.

Nearby, Arlington County public safety agencies are working to develop and put in place a UAS program, police spokeswoman Ashley Savage wrote in an email to FFXnow.

“The program is not yet operational and additional information will be shared with the public as we get closer to the program’s launch,” she wrote.

In Loudoun County, the sheriff’s department also uses drones, according to a police spokesperson.

The FAA issued rules for drone operators in 2016. According to a March 2020 report from the now-defunct Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, more than 1,500 U.S. state and local public safety agencies have obtained drones.