Eyes in the sky: how the Stafford County Sheriff's Office uses drones while navigating privacy concerns

Stafford County Sheriff investigators used their drone this week to track down an assault suspect, one of a few hundred drone missions for the agency.

The sheriff’s department shared thermal imagery video as the drone identified the man’s location and deputies moved in.

Investigators said Dallas Cousins assaulted a woman, made threats to hurt others and went on the run.

The department currently has a dozen drones and 15 trained pilots according to Capt. Ben Worcester.

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“We’ve used the drone for about 300 missions in the last four years,” said Worcester.

He said, primarily, the drones are used to search for fugitives or vulnerable missing people and not used for “petty crimes.”

Worcester said the department has heard privacy concerns from the public.

“A search warrant is required where there hasn’t been a crime that’s committed or some sort of natural disaster or catastrophe that gives us authority to go fly,” he said. “In other words, we don’t go looking for crime with drones. We respond to something that has happened.”

Virginia, unlike Maryland, requires law enforcement to get a warrant before flying in some cases.

According to research from Bard College, drone use has increased dramatically among public safety agencies since 2014, when just a few were using them. Their recent report said over 1,500 agencies are using drones, including 13 in Maryland and 41 in Virginia.