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Wilmington Leaders OK Drone Use for Social Distancing Monitoring

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Nick Santillo
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WPD currently has three drones. An additional eight -- purchased through a federal grant aimed to assist law enforcement -- would be used for multiple purposes: like investigating traffic accidents, or enforcing social distancing.

Wilmington leaders have passed a resolution authorizing the City Manager to apply for a COVID-19 pandemic-related grant. The funds -- nearly $235,000 -- would be used by the Wilmington Police Department to buy equipment: ultraviolet lights for sterilization, first aid kits, and eight drones.

WPD currently has three drones. The additional eight -- purchased through the federal grant aimed to assist law enforcement -- would be used for multiple purposes: like investigating traffic accidents, or enforcing social distancing. One Wilmington resident, Maria, sent an email to Council at the Tuesday, May 19 City Council meeting -- expressing concern about privacy. It was read by the City Clerk:

 

 

“As a Wilmington resident, I do not feel comfortable with the Wilmington Police Department using funds intended for the coronavirus to go towards drones that will be utilized for surveillance of the citizens.”

Interim Police Chief Donny Williams responded, stressing the technology would only be used for surveillance in public spaces:

“We currently have policies that are very clear on what they can and they cannot be used for: to give example, you cannot fly them over someone's yard unless there is a search warrant or some type of exigent circumstance.”

WPD officials say the drones will give the department the ability to observe situations from a distance -- and therefore preserve PPE supplies. 

After discussion, the resolution passed unanimously. 

The May 19 meeting also renewed the current state of emergency in the city. That means current COVID-19 restrictions will be extended through Friday, May 22 at 5 pm -- at which time Governor Roy Cooper could extend Phase 1, amend it, or implement Phase 2.