NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) - The use of drones for police work is on hold in the Commonwealth, after a Senate committee agreed on a 2-year moratorium to allow for further research.
The drones used by law enforcement are not always the military-style some may envision. For example, the Newport News Police Department flew a helium balloon 500 feet over the most recent Hollydazzle celebration to monitor crowds and traffic. A camera was attached to the drone.
"It gave us a good idea what traffic was doing before, during and after, and what the crowd was doing," Lou Thurston with the Newport News Police Department said.
Newport News isn't the only agency experimenting with drone technology. State Police said drones have life-saving potential.
"There is a viable option for use of these drones in law enforcement," a state police spokesperson told a Senate committee Monday in Richmond. "Or perhaps for senior alerts, amber alerts, to save someone's life."
The testimony came in reaction to a new bill that would require law enforcement to get warrants before putting drones in the air. The ACLU says that requirement is not harsh enough, calling the surveillance an invasion of privacy.
"Without a change in the law, police can have a drone follow you, or hang over your house or your business, or your farm, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, without any warrant or public consideration," said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, with the ACLU of Virginia.
Law enforcement officials say drones are used solely for police work, not for spying on citizens.
"People have to understand, if you are in public, you have no expectation of privacy," Thurston said. "Now, does that mean law enforcement or anyone else, needs to take a drone or balloon or whatever and focus in on your backyard when you're in the hot tub? No. That is not the business we're in."
And because of the heated debate, the senate committee supported a two year drone moratorium, to allow for time to research a better solution.
An ACLU spokesperson says simple drones, like the balloon used in Newport News, would fall under the moratorium.
The drone did not cost the Newport News taxpayers anything. A local company, BOSH Global Services, made the drone and did not charge police for trying it out.
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