As deputies from the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office fanned out recently to find a suspect, Lt. Christopher Neuhard’s eyes were on the skies.
Neuhard coordinates the office’s drone program, and one morning he and two technicians used the department’s Unmanned Aircraft System to look for a reportedly armed man running through a neighborhood after allegedly breaking into a house.
The technicians focused on the live images the drone camera transmitted to a screen hung on the side of their van, while Neuhard alternated his attention between the screen and the drone.
Drones have been in use in Stafford County since 2016, shortly after Virginia allowed police to use them. Since then, other counties, including Fairfax, Fauquier, Loudoun, and Prince William, have added the technology.
A drone gives officers a wider perspective when searching for suspects or missing people, or a look into tight, potentially unsafe places: Neuhard recalls flying a drone into an attic to see where a potentially armed suspect was hiding. Drones can help with accident reconstruction, which he hopes will lead to quicker road clearances. They are used to monitor barricade and hostage situations and are often used in conjunction with helicopters. Fairfax County police said a drone helped them resolve an August barricade situation.
In Fairfax County, where the UAS program started in 2019, police have flown at least 31 drone missions this year. In Prince William County, the program has been in place since September 2021; so far this year, it’s used drones nearly 80 times. Arlington County, according to a spokeswoman, is in the process of developing its drone program.
Drone pilots are trained and certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. But there are restrictions under FAA rules and Virginia law: The drone must remain in sight. It can’t go less than 500 feet below the clouds, or 400 feet from the ground, whichever is lower. And authorities have to get a search warrant or the permission of the property owner, unless someone is in immediate danger.
At the beginning of the program, Neuhard says, “People asked us about privacy concerns,” adding that they didn’t want drones “just randomly flying over” their homes. Transparency was key. “We wanted to be very up-front with what we were doing. We wanted people to have that confidence in us.”
In the end, Neuhard says they didn’t catch the suspect. They later learned that he jumped into a car before they even had a chance to set up. Weather and foliage can also thwart missions; Neuhard says that inside houses, “We’ve been defeated by garbage bags. … I’ve been defeated by a dreamcatcher” that got caught in the drone’s propeller blades.
Still, Neuhard calls the drone program “a tremendous safety enhancement for both us and the community.”
Feature image courtesy Fairfax County Police Department
This story originally ran in our December issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to Northern Virginia Magazine.