The Richmond Police Department likes everything about its new fleet of drones.
“They’re small. They’re portable. They’re easily deployed, and they are relatively inexpensive,” said Richmond police Capt. Michael Snawder, who pushed for the program and now leads the new team of unmanned aircraft systems and their pilots. “This is a game changer for us.”
As of Thursday, the department had four drones: two smaller units, which cost about $3,000 apiece, for searching inside buildings, along with two larger drones, which cost about $5,000 each, for wide-ranging searches outside. The department has trained about 20 officers, at a cost of $125 per person, to remotely pilot the drones.
Before adding more drones to the fleet, Snawder wants to use the existing drones in more missions to test their abilities and the scenarios in which they can be used. As of Friday afternoon, Richmond police spokesman James Mercante said he was unable to provide the total cost of the program.
During a demonstration Thursday for the news media, Snawder said Richmond police had used the drones so far while executing three or four search warrants. The department was planning to use the drones during a surprise SWAT team drill later that day at A.V. Norrell Annex in the city’s North Side.
“We used it during a call on the Z-Dam [on the James River], where someone thought that there were kayakers stuck in the hydraulics there. We were able to fly from Pony Pasture and scan the Z-Dam itself and determine that it was just debris.”
The department also used a drone during a recent incident in which there was an armed suspect on the 15th story of a building. Officers told the individual to drop the weapon, and Snawder used a drone to confirm from 15 stories below that the person had actually done so.
“The ability for me to tell officers, who are potentially going to have to confront a person who was armed just moments ago, that I have confirmed that they’re no longer armed, in and of itself would make it worth it,” said Snawder, who has had a commercial drone license for years.
He said addressing privacy concerns that community members and activists might have was a priority, so the department consulted the American Civil Liberties Union while drafting its policy, as it has done for other surveillance equipment, such as body cameras. The ACLU did not return a request for comment by press time Friday.
“In general, we’re going to want to have a search warrant before we use them,” Snawder said, “so the SWAT team, or focus mission team, or patrol, or investigators, they will have already secured that search warrant before we even think about using the unmanned aircraft.
“But monitoring neighborhoods, absolutely not. We knew going into this that would be a concern. I am a citizen as well; I wouldn’t want government or anyone flying over my home and recording me or listening to me.”
The drones are not capable of recording any audio, Snawder said. The department’s operating manual has other safeguards, such as preventing any recording until the drone is over the point of interest. So the drone doesn’t record its trip out or back, Snawder said, especially if the location is monitored from several blocks away.
The Federal Aviation Administration governs the department’s program, as it does any aircraft. The RPD’s program is also bound by the state code that regulates unmanned aircraft use by public bodies, which requires a search warrant unless there is an immediate danger, such as in the case of an Amber Alert.
Requirements also include a pilot, who cannot fly the aircraft farther than he or she can see it, and a spotter, who looks for other nearby aircraft. The drones can share their 4K-resolution footage with an “incident commander” blocks away, allowing for surveillance from a safe location — if, for instance, there is an active shooter.
Attachments provide additional visibility such as lights — the department received an FAA waiver to fly at night under certain circumstances. There are no infrared capability for now, but Snawder said the department would look to add that later.