How the Wilmington Police Department Uses Drones

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How the Wilmington Police Department Uses Drones
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NORTH CAROLINA-In early June, a persistent buzz could be heard over the cries of demonstrators protesting police violence and systemic racism in front of Wilmington City Hall.

The sound came from drones operated by the Wilmington Police Department, which, according […]


NORTH CAROLINA-In early June, a persistent buzz could be heard over the cries of demonstrators protesting police violence and systemic racism in front of Wilmington City Hall.

The sound came from drones operated by the Wilmington Police Department, which, according to the department's public drone logs, were deployed for "Crowd Observation / Protest Security" from June 1-6.

"You have large crowds, you have a variety of people on the ground from very peaceful to not so peaceful actors," said WPD Chief Pilot Paul Letson in an August interview. "So the drone can be used as an eye in the sky for the command post to keep an eye on what's happening around the officers and around critical areas where trouble can start."

This use is called "situational awareness," one of the five applications of drone technology listed in WPD documents.

"Our predominant use has been for crime scene investigation assistance and traffic accidents," said Letson, describing "scene documentation." "During a hurricane, we can use (drones) in addition to a helicopter to do surveys of damage and waterways."

Drone technology, which has rapidly come into mainstream use over the past decade, is also used by Wrightsville Beach Ocean Rescue and Wrightsville Beach Emergency Services.

SABLE

WPD has been expanding its aerial unit since 2006, when it acquired two helicopters from the Pentagon through a program that provides surplus military equipment to law enforcement.

In 2018 and 2019, WPD added unmanned aerial vehicles, or "drones," from the Montana-based Quadrocopter to the fleet.

Together, these aerial vehicles form WPD's SABLE Unit, or Southeastern North Carolina Airborne Law Enforcement, an interagency program that includes WPD, the Leland Police Department, the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office and Pender County Sheriff's Office.

WPD's website says it operates and maintains both helicopters and "is responsible for all daily operations, administrative requirements, budgeting, and is the primary Liaison for the (SABLE) program," whose executive board is made up of the chiefs of both police departments and sheriffs of each county.

According to drone logs, the technology was employed for training on Aug. 14, a traffic investigation on Aug. 15, mutual aid with the Carolina Beach Police Department Aug. 24-25 and to help search for a missing person on Aug. 27.

In September, WPD deployed drones for a demo at Battleship North Carolina on the 1st, a traffic investigation the 13th and a tactical operation on the 21st.

The log has not been updated in October and November.

At the May 5th Wilmington City Council meeting, weeks before Black Lives Matter protests broke out, WPD Chief Donny Williams noted how the department has used the technology.

"We have used them in our region approximately 42 times," Williams said. "And I think in the city of Wilmington and New Hanover County, 80% of the time that the drones are used has been for crash reconstruction. Another 19% of that time has been around crime scene investigations.

"We've used them once during the Azalea festival to help monitor crowds during the concerts. And there was also one time that we utilized them with the Wilmington Fire Department when Cypress Grove Apartments — one of the buildings was on fire."

Capabilities

WPD has three drones — all four-rotored DJI M200s equipped with surveillance cameras — in its SABLE unit, which can be also used for disaster rescue, infrastructure inspection, and search and rescue missions.

"We have a couple different versions of these drones," Letson said. "One has strictly camera, like a video camera view; one has camera view and then the infrared also."

Letson said the infrared system can only be activated to monitor or track someone with a warrant.

"Infrared is very broad," Letson said. "It sees a difference in temperature. For example, if a tree is heated up by a sun. A weapon would also look hotter than a person. If someone fleeing drops a weapon onto the grass we would see that."

According to WPD documents, drones are sometimes used as tactical deployment in emergency situations — such as "incidents involving hostages," large scale operations and temporary security — and for "visual perspective," which can include "crowd control, traffic incidents management" and fire support.

At the May 5th Wilmington City Council meeting, WPD Chief Donny Williams requested approval of a $234,749 Department of Justice grant application for COVID-19 relief.

Some of the money would go toward seven additional drones for the SABLE unit.

"One of the main (benefits of drones) is the social distancing aspect," Williams said. "You can equip these drones where you can speak through them, they can fly over or near crowds — and encourage people to social distance."

"It also gives you a very unique perspective, you can see where crowds are, you can see how close people are congregating together," he added.

Williams said the department's current fleet suffered from delayed response times, noting that SABLE requests can take up to 30-45 minutes, whereas these new drones would "be assigned to uniformed police officers in marked vehicles" to allow for quicker deployment.

Although DOJ and city council approved the grant request, the new drones were not acquired. At the Sept. 1 City Council meeting, Williams said that the DOJ suspended its rule allowing police to use the grant for drones.

Regulations

WPD drones, each of which costs about $4,600, must be operated by someone licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration and N.C. Dept. of Transportation.

Unlike SABLE helicopters, which must fly above 500 feet in the daytime and 700 feet at night, drones must fly below 400 feet as anything above would constitute navigable airspace.

According to WPD documents, drone operators may not conduct warrantless surveillance of individuals or their property without their consent.

"They could be used for surveillance in public spaces," Williams said at the May 5 City Council meeting. "We currently have policies that are very clear about what they can and cannot be used for."

"To give examples," Williams continued, "you cannot fly them over someone's private property, you cannot fly them over someone's yard unless there is a search warrant or some kind of exigent circumstance."

The exceptions are to conduct emergency management, "facilitate the search of a missing person" or counter a terrorist attack by an individual or organization the U.S. Department of Homeland Security or N.C. Dept. of Public Safety deems a credible threat. Drone operators may also record gatherings of the general public and conduct surveillance operations that prevent imminent danger to life or property, the escape of a suspect or destruction of evidence.

Per N.C. law, the other exception is "to conduct surveillance in an area that is within a law enforcement officer's plain view when the officer is in a location the officer has a legal right to be."

As with SABLE helicopters, all footage captured by drones are uploaded to a secure WPD server and reviewed by a supervisor. Logged footage, referred to as "digital multimedia evidence" in WPD documents, includes the "case number, date, time (and) location" of the recording.

There are strict protocols for managing footage.

"Officers shall not edit, alter, erase, duplicate, copy, share, or otherwise distribute in any matter UAS DME without prior authorizations," WPD documents state.

Only authorized users are permitted to access the footage.

While drone cameras can move left and right, and back and forth they do not have panoptical vision and can only face one direction.

When asked in an August interview about the possibility of passively capturing civilians not under the specific investigation, WPD Capt. Rodney Dawson acknowledged that footage could be retroactively used in unrelated investigations, but said it would be difficult.

"If we had footage of downtown and we later find out that a crime occurred when we were videoing something separate, we would absolutely look back at that footage," Dawson said. "But it would be like finding a needle in a haystack, since it's not a 360 degree view. It's a very specific angle. The operator is zooming in on one area."

Letson said that while operators could not intentionally monitor an individual without a warrant, they could use footage that inadvertently captured someone in an act of unrelated wrongdoing.

"If we're doing a search for a person, who is running from a bank, with the aircraft...and the canine's tracking a specific direction and we're looking in that specific direction for that reason...If we see something, any unlawful actions, situations in the backyard of a house — that's incident," Letson said. "So that is not a specific act, where you go and actually try to find it. If I look in the backyard and something bad is happening there, we happen to see it, that's incident to the search and that is a legal view — whether it's using infrared or a video camera.

"If the operator did not intentionally go looking for that situation, that is incidental to the search. If somebody were to be looking at a stream bed, you know seeing how bad the flood damage was, trying (to help) the city planners to try to mitigate that in the future, and they see something (unlawful) there, that's an incident to the search."

Reporter Jonathan Haynes can be reached at 910-343-2339 or [email protected].

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