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Chief: Drones 'certainly' coming to skies over Beltway

Monday - 4/30/2012, 5:46pm  ET

ChiefsDeaneRohrer640.jpg
Prince William County Police Chief Charlie Deane and Fairfax County Police Chief David Rohrer. (WTOP/Paul D. Shinkman)

Ask the Chief

Police chiefs David Rohrer, from Fairfax County, and Charlie Deane, from Prince William County.

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Full "Ask the Chief" live blog below

Paul D. Shinkman, wtop.com
Mark Segraves, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Look up. Drones are "certainly" coming to the skies over the Beltway in the next few years, one area police chief says.

The use of drones in the D.C. area became public information last week, after the Federal Aviation Administration released a list of agencies currently or previously permitted to use the unmanned aerial vehicles. It included many federal departments, such as Agriculture, Homeland Security and Energy as well as local organizations such as Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Tech.

"Drones will certainly have a purpose and a reason to be in this region in the next, coming years," said Fairfax County Police Chief David Rohrer, while speaking on WTOP's "Ask the Chief" program on Monday. "Just as a standpoint as an alternative for spotting traffic and sending information back to our VDOT Smart Traffic centers, and being able to observe backups."

The use of drones over U.S. soil has some in Congress concerned about Americans' privacy rights.

"The potential for invasive surveillance of daily activities with drone technology is high," wrote Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., in an April 19 letter to FAA. "We must ensure that as drones take flight in domestic airspace, they don't take off without privacy protections for those along their flight path."

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said in the same letter he "proudly suppported" the FAA Modernization and Reform Act that allowed for the domestic use of drones. There are many institutions in his home state that the FAA has cleared for drone use, including Texas A&M University, and the police forces in the city of Arlington outside Dallas-Fort Worth and in Montgomery County near Houston.

"However, if used improperly or unethically, drones could endanger privacy and I want to make sure that risk is taken into consideration," he said.

The police chief of Prince William County, Va., which neighbors Fairfax, is not as focused on the prospect of the alternative monitoring system.

"I really haven't studied them that much," says Police Chief Charlie Dean. "I'm sure they're valuable to some degree, but I don't know about their capabilities."

The police chiefs also discussed their officers' involvement in seeking out illegal immigrants.

Prince William County has received national attention for its aggressive policy of checking the immigration status of every person arrested.

Victims of crimes and witnesses are exempt from such questioning, Deane said Monday. He supported the policy as "fair, lawful and reasonable."

Upon learning that an arrested person is an illegal immigrant, Prince William police officers then turn over their information to federal authorities, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Fairfax County officers are not required to ask about immigration status after making an arrest, says Rohrer, though officers are trained to ask if they suspect someone might be in the country illegally.

"We are not a sanctuary," he says.

Learn more about police officers' use of cellphones -- and a potential ban for them -- as well as speed cameras and domestic violence in Northern Virginia, among other issues, in our live blog:

10:56 a.m., speaking about license plate readers:

Rohrer: We retain that data for less than a year. We understand the issues about privacy. We're able to keep that for longer if we determine we should.

Deane: We keep it for less than a year. "It's fascinating data."

10:54 a.m., speaking about staff levels:

Deane: Our population went up 25,000, but we've had no increases in police officers. We'll have 11 more next year, which is a start. I think we should be adding around 25 a year, due to population and the complexity of our work.

It's not just about crime, it's about traffic and other complex crimes.

Rohrer: I do think we're keeping pace with population growth. We've had cuts in the last years, we are a lean organization. It's about one police officer per 1,000 resident.

It's not just next year for me, but the next couple of years.

The Metro is due to open around Tysons Corner next year.

10:53 a.m., speaking about snatch-and-grab robberies:

Rohrer: We're seeing them, but not as much as other jurisdictions. I want to commend D.C. Chief Lanier on the tactics she's taken, such as having the phone companies "brick" the phones so they cannot be reused.

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