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Wilmington police borrow M-16s, surveillance helicopters from Department of Defense

Wilmington, NC Police Department (Facebook)
September 13, 2020

Over the past 16 years, the Wilmington Police Department has been borrowing surplus items from the Defense Department through an obscure federal program.

WPD has used the 1033 program to obtain both “uncontrolled items,” such as generators and tents, and “controlled items,” such as M-16 rifles and surveillance drones.

The N.C. Dept. of Public Safety audits controlled items annually, whereas uncontrolled items are only audited after the first year.

“Patrol officers are assigned M16 rifles because those weapons exist on the street and officers need to be prepared if confronted by a suspect armed with such a weapon,” said WPD Capt. Rodney Dawson, adding that the weapons cannot be used for crowd control or civil disturbances. “Our officers are trained to match, or exceed by one level, any use-of-force by a suspect. Thus, they would be expected to have a weapon that matches an M16 rifle when confronted by a suspect carrying one.”

Since the inventory has already been paid for, WPD has borrowed everything free of charge.

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“They still belong to the military and at any point the military can come up and say we want our equipment back,” said WPD Capt. Rodney Dawson. “Tax dollars have already paid for these items, so instead of the military disposing of them, they’re basically given a second life through law enforcement.”

The Defense Department regularly posts surplus inventory on a classified website, where different agencies can apply for individual items. The Law Enforcement Support Office then determines which departments meet certain criteria and demonstrate the most need.

Only law enforcement officers are allowed to use the items obtained through the program, mostly at the direction of the police chief — in this case Donny Williams.

According to Dawson, WPD has modified several items for local use.

For example, WPD removed the turrets from its two M-ATVs, all-terrain vehicles for high-water rescue, and downgraded its 29 M-16 rifles to semi-automatic firing, even though they came with fully-automatic capacity.

Dawson said the equipment is mostly used for disaster relief.

“M-ATVs were used to clear a tree and move through a flooded roadway where we helped someone get out,” he said.

“Generators were requested during the last hurricane,” said WPD Spokeswoman Jessica Williams. “We had four generators going into Isaias, and there were far more stoplights than generators.”

Dawson added the program helps bigger agencies, which tend to qualify for more items, assist smaller ones in emergencies.

“While it has to be used by law enforcement, if there’s an emergency with floods, we can send our personnel to the affected region,” he said, noting that Pender County floods easily. “We’re using this equipment to help the Cape Fear region.”

Most of WPDs aerial technology, such as the SABLE helicopter and surveillance drones, came from the program.

“When aircraft were acquired, they were equipped with law enforcement and civilian radio,” WPD Chief Pilot Paul Letson said of SABLE helicopters. “We added infrared, mapping, and a spotlight.”

Letson added that SABLE or drones could be deployed for search and rescue missions, finding missing persons, monitoring car chases, or active patrol.

“We’ve used it to rescue personnel, bring food to people who were stuck in flooded areas, and work alongside beach communities to find missing people,” said Letson. “If someone is fleeing, we’ll search an area in front of the officer to see if there’s someone in the bushes.”

All footage from SABLE or drone cameras are uploaded to a secure server and reviewed by supervisors in the department.

When asked about the possibility of passively capturing civilians not under the specific investigation, 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,” he 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 the infrared system can only be used to monitor or track someone with a warrant.

“Infrared is very broad,” he 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.”

Drones can be deployed for anything from utilities inspections to protests, to see if anyone is armed.

The department has posted an online drone log, though it only contains data for June, when drones were deployed for “Crowd Observation/Protest Security” during the first week.

WPD policy forbids aerial vehicles from flying lower than 500 feet in the daytime and 700 feet at night.

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© 2020 the Star-News