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No drones planned for Montgomery County


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Published on: Thursday, February 28, 2013

By Holden Wilen

ROCKVILLE - Despite agencies and organizations across the country seeking authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to use police drones, local law enforcement officials said they do not have any plans to use drones in the foreseeable future.

“I want to be clear, we don’t have any plans (to use drones),” said J. Thomas Manger, Montgomery County Police Department chief. “There’s been no discussions, and we don’t have any plans to use drone technology.”

Before he would consider using drones, Manger said he would want to see how other jurisdictions use drones to see if there is any value in their use. Manger said he can already picture how drones would be useful in finding missing people and providing an eye in the sky during foot pursuits. He said drones could be used similarly to how helicopters are used to provide air support.

Despite the opportunities drone technology could provide, Manger said a major problem would be privacy issues.

“I don’t believe the public right now is ready to support the use of drones by police departments,” Manger said. “I think the vast majority of the public would have concerns about privacy issues and about what (the drones) would be used for. I can understand that.

“There would have to be strict rules to make sure that people’s rights aren’t violated and we’re abiding by the laws of search and seizure,” he said. “You can’t just spy on somebody’s property or on an individual for no reason. You’ve got to be very careful.”

At this moment in time there are enough questions from the public and elected officials about the use of license-plate readers and speed cameras, Manger said. The main difference between cameras and drones, he said, is driving is a privilege and people have a lower expectation of privacy than when they are in their own home.

David Rocah, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland, said the ACLU’s stance is it believes law enforcement could legitimately use drones for ongoing crimes, and act as an unmanned helicopter, but there would also have to be limits on usage, retention of images captured by the drones and a prohibition on equipping drones with any kinds of weapons.

As for the city of Rockville, Police Chief T.N. Treschuk said drones are not something an agency as small as the city’s police department would ever consider. If the county were to obtain drones, he said the city would hope to share information.

“I think it’s a very expensive and costly item that larger metropolitan areas can be looking at, but the smaller locations like Rockville, we would try to piggyback on information that the larger enforcement agencies have,” Treschuk said. “We have a great working relationship with the county.”

From the county’s perspective, Manger said besides the privacy issues, he also has other items on his budget which are of more immediate assistance. For one, only a third of police cars are equipped with cameras, and he wants all the cars equipped.

Another piece of technology Manger said he wants to implement is putting cameras on the officers themselves. Though it’s expensive technology, he said it can help exonerate police officers when people make complaints.

“It’s for the officer’s protection and for increased accountability for the public,” Manger said. “I firmly believe that my cops are out here doing what they’re supposed to do, but there’s always a lot of question about the way police do their job.”

Overall, it seems there won’t be drones flying over Montgomery County any time soon, but Manger said they could potentially be more cost-effective than using helicopters.

“I tried to start a helicopter program which got no support from the County Council, so that went nowhere,” Manger said. “Maybe this would be a cheaper way to get some of that same technology, but as I’ve said, that’s not on the horizon for us.”

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