Town puts off drone program

FRONT ROYAL – The town’s proposal to use drones appears grounded, at least for now.

Town Council continued its discussion last week about the idea to set up guidelines for drone use by certain departments and to apply to the Federal Aviation Administration for the license to operate the devices. But, in the end, council decided to put the proposal on the backburner for a year.

Town officials originally proposed using drones to monitor equipment run by the Department of Environmental Services, to aid the Police Department with its investigations and to make videos for tourism and marketing.

Council asked town officials to write up a proposed policy for the use of drones. Town Manager Steve Burke came back to council with a policy.

“In its development, in going through the philosophy for its use, we have eliminated a request to utilize it for tourism events,” Burke said. “Trying to mesh privacy concerns with use at tourism events we could not come to grips that we could be able to incorporate the policy as presented and use it in that fashion.”

Instead, the policy limits drone use to the inspection of town facilities and assistance with police or fire investigations as authorized by court action. The proposed policy indicates the town would not keep video footage for more than 30 days with the exception of recordings needed for litigation, training or other use.

Mayor Timothy Darr suggested the policy include a provision that any intentional violation or known misuse would result in the immediate termination of any employees involved.

“If we have an employee who’s been entrusted … and they decide they’re gonna have some fun with this thing then they need to realize that there’s a more serious repercussion than just not being able to use the drone anymore,” Darr said.

Burke estimated the cost to buy the drone, train the operator and obtain the necessary permits at $2,000-$2,500. The money is available in the Information Technology Department budget, Burke said. The town already has a GoPro camera that it would use with a drone, Burke added.

The Harrisonburg Police Department also is pursuing an FAA permit to use a drone.

Councilman John Connolly asked how the Freedom of Information Act would pertain to the proposed policy rule pertaining to release of video footage connected to a police department investigation. An earlier policy point would prohibit the release except in a presentation to council, as evidence in a claim or pending litigation, or as authorized by the town attorney as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request.

The state law would trump the town’s policy, officials said.

Darr said the drone policy, specifically pertaining to release of the video footage, should mirror the language in the police body camera policy. Connolly asked if there is a legal distinction between video taken by body cameras and footage recorded by a drone. The General Assembly adopted language that calls for law enforcement to obtain a warrant to collect footage with a drone, Burke said.

“I’m just trying to be cautious because I don’t want us to start drafting a policy that could mislead staff in the future into mistakenly not complying with FOIA,” Connolly said.

But Councilman Eugene Tewalt said he worried that the town might violate federal laws or spur a private individual to accuse it of infringing on his or her rights. Tewalt said he didn’t think the town needed a drone at this time. Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger said she would side with Tewalt. Egger asked if authorities could use footage taken that inadvertently captures images of illegal activity. Town Attorney Doug Napier said law enforcement agencies likely could use the footage in its investigation but no cases depicting this kind of scenario exist yet. Connolly said he worried that cases involving drone use by authorities will come in the future and he doesn’t want the town to become embroiled in such legal matters.

At the end of the discussion, Burke suggested that town officials put the concept on hold for a year.

“I would feel more comfortable with that,” Egger said.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com