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Hanover deputies showcase law enforcement drone pilots

A group of people stand wearing business clothing. Several cover their eyes as they look up
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Members of the Hanover County Board of Supervisor and their staff attend drone demonstration on Wednesday, April 26, 2023 at Hanover County Sheriff's Department Firing Range.

The county sheriff's department demonstrated to the Board of Supervisors how drone cameras have enhanced its work.

The Hanover County Sheriff's Department is using drones to enhance its law enforcement activities. Hanover’s Sheriff Col. David Hines and fellow deputies showcased their growing team of pilots to the county's Board of Supervisors during a demonstration Wednesday at the department's outdoor shooting range.

The small unmanned aircraft systems team, or sUAS team, was established in 2019 and has grown to nine pilots. Each pilot is certified and governed by the rules and regulations established by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Over the course of five years, the department has spent around $50,000 to acquire new equipment and train the sUAS team.

“Our county administration has been very supportive of the sheriff's office and public safety in general,” Hines said. "I like to take every opportunity I can to show them what tax dollars are being spent on.”

Hines said in addition to saving cost, the drone cameras have greatly enhanced the department's effectiveness — whether it’s monitoring traffic accidents or missing person investigations.

Lt. Sean Smith cited one particular instance in which deputies were able to locate a man experiencing a mental health emergency running through a pitch black area. He said deputies also located the body of a missing person in the woods using a drone two years ago.

Although the supervisors praised the deputies' use of new technology, they also raised several concerns about citizens’ privacy and the legality of using drones as surveillance tools

“We have to play by the rules,” Smith said. “If I was an ordinary citizen, I could go get my pilot's license and fly almost wherever I want, but the department is hindered because the state mandates us.”

In addition to FAA standards, Virginia has codified strict guidelines governing law enforcement agencies’ use of drones. The code states departments must obtain warrants before deploying any drone, excluding unique circumstances like an Amber or Silver alert.

Law enforcement agencies can also use drones for training exercises and assessing damages from traffic, flood or wildfire activity. Airspace controlled by the FAA — or otherwise occupied by other aircraft or flight paths — could also hinder the department's drone use.

Mandates aside, Hines praised his department and the board for their work in building the sUAS team, and he expressed hopes to expand the sUAS team by training additional pilots within the year.

“Ten years ago, I wouldn't have even known to even suspect something like this existed,” Hines said. “But, this team is extremely important to us and I think its importance grows each day, as we move forward, as technology changes.”

Lyndon German covers Henrico and Hanover counties for VPM News.