WILMINGTON —- The Department of Justice has approved the Wilmington Police Department’s grant application for $234,749 in coronavirus emergency relief funding.
The funding will cover the cost for the department to purchase eight drones, first aid kits, an ultraviolet light sterilization chamber, generators, portable camera towers, a portable toilet, portable message boards, a decontamination tent, a mobile radio, and medical supplies.
When the funding first appeared on City Council’s consent agenda in May, some felt using drones to address the pandemic was a bit of a stretch and Chief Donny Williams faced questions about the item.
When asked by Councilman Kevin Spears during a May 19 City Council meeting to explain how the drones related to the pandemic, Williams said the technology was included as an allowable cost through the DOJ grant.
Drones could be used to monitor social distancing in public, Williams explained, equipped with the ability for officers to speak through them and encourage crowds to stay six feet apart.
Besides working the pandemic angle, Williams said the request is also to obtain the drones for other uses. He said the department wanted to be strategic when applying for the grant, seeking items that wouldn’t “sit in a warehouse” when the virus is over.
“We wanted to use it for other uses,” he told Council.
WPD currently has three drones assigned to its SABLE unit. Its first drone was used in April 2019 to monitor concert crowds during the N.C. Azalea Festival. A drone was also used to assist the Wilmington Fire Department survey a fire at the Cypress Grove apartment complex in June 2019.
Besides these two instances, drones had been used 40 other times, Williams told Council, mostly to reconstruct car crashes and investigate crime scenes.
[Editor’s note: As part of an effort to provide increased transparency, the Wilmington Police Department started posting its drone logs online. However, the log doesn’t appear to have been updated since and still only shows the month of June.]
The new drones would be assigned to marked SUVs and uniformed police officers, which could immediately deploy them if necessary; trained SABLE unit officers may take as long as 30 minutes to arrive at a scene with a drone.
“I see the most use out of the drones, if we’re in a car chase and we get a jump and run, I could see us using them for that. If we get a kid that’s missing, I could see us using them in those applications and to assist our partners in the fire department and other public safety agencies,” Williams said.
Under its own policy, WPD cannot fly drones over private property unless there’s an active search warrant or an “exigent circumstance.”
City Council will review the DOJ award letter and vote to approve an agreement to accept the funds at its upcoming regular meeting Sept. 1.
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