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County seeks feedback on policies for using drones during public safety and emergency responses

Drone seen flying near former Key Bridge Marriott (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Drones could soon figure into the future of public safety in Arlington.

Arlington’s police and fire departments, the Sheriff’s Office and the Dept. of Public Safety Communications and Emergency Management are developing a joint program to use drones when responding to public safety and emergency incidents.

Now through New Year’s Day, people can comment on their draft policies regulating the training, operations and oversight of the “Unmanned Aircraft Systems program,” or UAS.

“All comments provided will be reviewed and evaluated for incorporation into the policies,” a county press release says. “Implementation of the program is anticipated in early 2024 following the completion, review, and incorporation of community feedback on the draft policies.”

Law enforcement could use drones for situational awareness: for instance, one was seen during the large public safety agency presence at the Key Bridge Marriott when it was condemned. Drones could also help collect evidence, conduct search and rescue operations and monitor public events.

The county has posted draft policies for ACPD, ACFD and the Dept. of Public Safety Communications and Emergency Management online for people to review. Much of the language is the same across all three policies.

More on the purpose of the program, from ACPD’s policy:

The UAS program shall be used only to support the missions of participating agencies and for legitimate purposes such as situational awareness of public safety incidents, search and rescue operations, and evidence collection, in accordance with applicable state and federal laws and regulations.

These drones will not be equipped with weapons. Only those assigned to the program, with proper training, can operate them, in accordance with the Fourth Amendment — which prohibits unlawful searches and seizures — and other applicable laws.

If approved, there would be monthly audits reviewing the number and length of flights, their efficacy, any safety or equipment concerns and potential violations of policy or law, the policy says.

ACPD will let the public know about all pre-planned drone deployments and it will publish an annual report with the total number of flights, the time, date, location of and reason for each flight. Exceptions would be made when this information would jeopardize personnel safety or a criminal investigation.

These aircraft could help these agencies work more efficiently and safely with fewer staff. ACPD, for instance, has had to scale back services amid ongoing challenges with recruiting and retaining officers.

Improved officer safety could, in turn, bolster staffing levels, Arlington’s police and fire chiefs said earlier this year, in a preliminary discussion with the Arlington County Board about drones.

More from a press release:

The draft policies were developed after an extensive review of model policies and recommendations by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and policies of police departments across the country with established UAS programs. The goal is to create model policies for Arlington County, utilizing established best practices while ensuring compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. […]

Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program Background
Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) provide enhanced operational capability, safety, and situational awareness for first responders in support of public safety. The UAS Program will only be utilized for specific public safety missions and will be operated only by trained and authorized personnel in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. For additional information on the UAS program, including answers to frequently asked questions, visit our website.

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