Chief: Drones ‘certainly’ coming to skies over Beltway

Full “Ask the Chief” live blog below

Paul D. Shinkman,
Mark Segraves,

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.

10:51 a.m., speaking about over-the-county allergy medicine used to make methamphetamines:

Rohrer: Those laws help us track the movement of trafficking methamphetamines.

Deane: We are seeing more prescription drugs being abused.

The drug take-back programs, such as the DEA’s, are “very good.”

10:41 a.m., speaking about immigration:

Deane: Our policy is simple. We investigate the immigration policy of anyone who is arrested, regardless of their nationality.

From a policy standpoint, we focus on individuals who are in the country illegally who have committed a crime. We are not doing random checks.

Part of our policy, very firmly entrenched with our officers, is to protect the status of people who are victims of crimes, regardless of their immigration status. “We do not participate in racial profiling.”

We report any illegal immigrants to federal law enforcement.

It’s certainly an increase in work “but it’s a part of our business today.”

“It’s policy that we must check their immigration status.”

The press scrutiny can be a distraction, but the policy we came up with is “fair, lawful and reasonable.”

Rohrer: Prince William’s policy goes further than ours. We don’t ask everyone who is arrested. “What matters to us is their behavior.”

Roughly 30 percent of our residents are foreign-born. “We have to do what we can to have a balanced policy.”

The Secure Communities federal program gets a lot of attention. The sheriff’s office participates in that, but our officers don’t have a say in that.

I’ve never banned our officers from asking those questions. They might have a suspicion about illegal immigration.

“We are not a sanctuary.”

10:36 a.m., speaking about concealed-carry firearm permits:

Deane: It doesn’t matter. You can have it concealed, because that’s what you have a permit for. My advice is to tell the officers that you have it when they stop you.

10:35 a.m., speaking about recent stabbing attacks on horses:

Rohrer: I wish I had more information. It was a vicious attack, but the horses are back in service this morning.

10:34 a.m., speaking about using unmanned aerial drones:

Deane: I haven’t studied it, but we see that equipment at conferences.

Rohrer: I think drones will certainly have a purpose to be in this region in the near future, at least for traffic, and observing backups.

10:31 a.m., speaking about speed cameras:

Rohrer: Without a doubt, it brings down speeding.

I know I wouldn’t win chief of the year for encouraging that, since it isn’t very popular.

Deane: I am in support. It should not be about money, it should be about controlling speeding.

I went to London recently, and “I was struck by how people leaving distances, and don’t cut in suddenly,” for the cameras around Heathrow airport.

Rohrer: I disagree that it should be applied strategically.

10:25 a.m., speaking about domestic violence:

Rohrer: We have a lot of work to do. It’s one of my top priorities. There are far too many cases that go unreported. I encourage everyone — “it’s a human right, not just a legal right” — to report these incidents.

10:20 a.m., speaking about safety during car chases:

Deane: It’s all about risk analysis. It’s an ongoing analysis of the risk of the case, how violent it is, what kind of case it is, whether you can identify the person later.

“If it isn’t a violent case, the chase might not be worthwhile at all.”

Weather, traffic, speed are all taken into account. Whether it’s near a school zone or during school hours.

Police supervisors are required to “fire up” and take control of pursuits.

We’re more restrictive than when I came in today.

Officers are allowed to pursue people over county lines. There are restrictions regarding pursuit into D.C.

Rohrer: Our officers are allowed to use, in limited situations, tactical maneuvers to force a car to stop. They have to consider the size and speed of the road.

We tightened our policy about 10 years ago. There are only certain crimes that are allowed to continue over county or state lines.

A stolen car, and the six months in jail for that perpetrator, are not worth the risk, probably, in a suburban neighborhood.

10:16 a.m., speaking about officers using cellphones while driving:

Deane: We encourage our officers not to use hands-on phones while driving, but we have not banned it. They’re used to dealing with multiple communication devices at once.

“I anticipate we’ll be prohibiting it over time.”

Rohrer: I’m not ready to go that far. “There are times when they’ll have to do things while driving.”

In Virginia, regular drivers cannot use the device while driving, even checking text messages.

10:10 a.m., speaking about gangs problem, including sex trafficking:

Rohrer: We received information that a subset of the Crips gang was trafficking young women, approaching them on Facebook and on the streets. It seems they recruited them very easily. They were underage in many cases, from 15-17 years old, up to the mid 20s.

We take this very seriously, but gang crime is a very small portion of our overall crime.

“I want our residents to feel safe.”

Most of our gang crime is property, from graffiti.

Deane: We tap into the Northern Virginia task force on crime. It helps us keep track of individuals moving across borders. It’s very important we know who is affiliated with whom. We get that information from vehicles, tattoos, and gang names. That helps us determine who commits these crimes.

Rohrer: We have very strong laws on the books to prosecute gangs.

Deane: Those were started by some incidents in Northern Virginia and pushed through the legislature.

10:07 a.m., speaking about BRAC:

Rohrer: We’re blessed to have the jobs. Now we need to work on the traffic implications.

10:05 a.m., speaking about traffic

Deane: We do everything we can to keep traffic moving, such as motorcycle officers who can get to accidents quickly. We have push-bumpers on cars to help move vehicles out of the way.

The most important thing is for people to keep themselves safe after getting into an accident:

Rohrer: It only takes one accident to back the roads up. It would help if people knew alternate routes. “When that gets messed up, they tend to just stop and not know where to go.”

Our close partner is VDOT. We have an information center we share with them.

WTOP’s Paul D. Shinkman contributed to this report. Follow Paul and WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up