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Ask a Journalist: Questions about Cape Fear Regional Special Teams and SWAT

WPD Police Chief Donny Williams speaking at the Duplin Events Center
Camille Mojica
WPD Police Chief Donny Williams speaking at the Duplin Events Center with members of the Cape Fear Regional Special Teams.

Q: What is the Cape Fear Regional Special Teams? Who’s involved, what do they do, who’s in charge — and how do they relate to SWAT?

A: Cape Fear Regional Special Teams is a regional collaboration between a host of law enforcement agencies, led by the Wilmington Police Department. They’re dispatched when agencies need more personnel — but they also host a collaborative SWAT team. In general, SWAT is rarely dispatched, but when they are it’s for high-risk situations. WHQR sat down with several WPD officers to get a better sense of how the Special Teams and SWAT work and the evolving challenges they face.

Shortly before dawn on Wednesday, May 22, members of the Cape Fear Regional Special Teams SWAT Unit served a warrant to a residence on South 11th Street on Wilmington's Southside. After police deployed a “distraction device,” the situation devolved rapidly: one SWAT team member was shot and police returned fire, striking the suspect. The officer wasn’t badly injured thanks to a ballistic vest; the suspect was severely injured, and later died in the hospital.

The high-profile situation prompted questions from WHQR listeners and readers — about what the Cape Fear Regional Special Teams is, how and when it’s deployed, how officers decide to use lethal force, and what happens afterward when they do. We also got questions about the nationwide struggle to recruit and retain staff — and the growing number of more powerful firearms that law enforcement officers are facing on the streets.

To address those, we sat down with Captain Thomas Tilmon, who oversees Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) as part of WPD’s special operations division, Lieutenant Joseph LaChapelle, who served as a SWAT member for many years, and Lieutenant Greg Willett, a WPD veteran who now serves as a public information officer.

Cape Fear Regional Special Teams and SWAT

As the name implies, the Cape Fear Regional Special Teams – (Special Teams, for this article) — is a collaborative response team founded in late 2021 and effectively headquartered at the Wilmington Police Department. It includes police departments from Carolina Beach, Leland, Wrightsville, Whiteville, Burgaw, Boiling Spring Lakes, and UNCW — as well as the Sheriff’s Offices in Pender and Duplin and the fire departments from Leland and Wilmington.

The Special Teams include a bomb squad, crisis negotiation, logistics, a mobile command unit, logistics, and a SWAT team. Each division gets frequent training and the entire team trains together quarterly.

Special Teams is not the same as WPD’s SWAT team — although there is some overlap.

According to Tilmon, dispatching Special Teams is about one of the member agencies needing more personnel — sometimes, but not necessarily, SWAT members. While WPD serves as a lead agency, any member agency can request assistance from Special Teams.

SWAT, on the other hand, are specially trained officers who work throughout WPD and other agencies and respond only to specific high-risk incidents. According to LaChapelle, members of SWAT have additional training — two eight-hour sessions per month, plus an offsite weeklong team training — and have to meet stricter firearms proficiency and physical fitness standards. Members of SWAT are on call 365 days a year.

The Sheriff’s Offices in Brunswick and New Hanover counties maintain their own SWAT teams, and don’t partner with the Special Teams. WPD confirmed that NHCSO does work closely with WPD on other task forces around the community.

LaChapelle said that WPD SWAT and Special Teams might respond to the same situation as the county or federal law enforcement; while they might not work together they would coordinate rotating in and out of a prolonged situation — LaChapelle pointed to a weeklong standoff in Carolina Beach.

When SWAT is dispatched

Rolling out SWAT, especially for a warrant — as was the case in the May 22 incident — is pretty rare, according to WPD.

“So it's not like the SWAT team is rolled out there just for everything we do. I will tell you, because I used to be the division commander in the Criminal Investigations Division, that probably 99% of our search warrants do not involve the use of a SWAT team. 99% of our search warrants are really boring, like most officers would tag along on them, and they think they're exciting, and you're collecting sheets, and they're like, ‘well, this isn't like I see on TV.’ And I'm like, ‘No, it's not,’” Tilmon said.

In general, Tilmon said a risk assessment is performed by the supervisor of the division handling a potential arrest or investigation. Tilmon said some of the factors include whether the suspect is armed, has a violent history, or is involved in gang activity.

LaChapelle said SWAT also tries to balance the needs of a situation with a measured response.

“It's a balancing act. We're trying to go in there being prepared, but with the smallest footprint possible,” LaChappelle said.

Tilmon also said modern police tactics have changed during his career, and that these days SWAT always has a crisis negotiator alongside the team.

“There's a crisis negotiator that's always with the team. You know, modern police tactics deal with de-escalation. Back in the 80s and 90s and early on in my career, we would have just gone into these houses to execute the search warrants. And we're not always necessarily doing that. Sometimes we could be using the negotiators on the outside of the house,” Tilmon said.

There’s also significant planning for SWAT operations, according to Willett.

“It's a lot less Hollywood. It’s like anything – take fighter pilots flying off an aircraft carrier, you know, Top Gun and all that – and it's like, no, there's actually hours and hours of straight boredom and methodical planning to every little mission. It's the same way, [with SWAT],” Willett said. “It’s not show up and work it on the fly.”

Distraction devices to lethal force

According to WPD’s account of the May 22 incident, Special Teams, SWAT, and a crisis negotiator arrived at a residence on Wilmington’s Southside to serve a warrant related to a narcotics investigation. Part of SWAT's plan was to deploy a distraction device, not an uncommon tactic.

"Most of the tactics that the SWAT team uses — without getting into particular tactics — we use to confuse a suspect so that they don't have an opportunity to make bad decisions for themselves. And in doing that, we're able — a lot of times, 99.9% of the time — to apprehend the suspect without hurting the suspect at all," LaChapelle said.

But this particular situation quickly turned violent. While that’s a contingency officers plan for, Tilmon said the decision to pivot from negotiation to lethal force is up to the individual officer.

“I don't have to call my sergeant and go, ‘Hey, Sarge, this guy's shooting at me. What can I do?’ and wait for him to say, ‘shoot back!’ So if somebody's shooting at me, I have the immediate capability to make the decision to shoot back without requesting anyone's permission to do that,” Tilmon said.

But there are other situations that are far more complicated than just returning fire. The decision is still up to the officer — within the guidelines set up by state law, written in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1985 ruling in Tennessee vs. Gardner. The ruling limited, in some ways, officers' legal use of force.

Under North Carolina law, lethal force is allowable by an officer to defend themselves or others from the “imminent use of deadly force” by a suspect, to arrest or prevent the escape of someone who is intent on seriously injuring or killing someone if they are not apprehended, and to prevent “the escape of a person from custody imposed upon [them] as a result of a conviction for a felony.”

Prior to the case, as Tilmon noted, officers could shoot a fleeing suspect with little regulation.

“When police used to yell, ‘stop or I’ll shoot,’ they meant it,” Tilmon said.

Tilmon and LaChapelle also dismissed the idea that officers take warning shorts or trying to wound a suspect — “shooting them in the arm,” as Willett put it. Tilmon said warning shots were specifically prohibited in WPD policy. And, in general, Willet said if officers were shooting they were shooting to put a suspect down.

The courts have also acknowledged the rapidly evolving situation and split-second decisions that are common when officers use deadly force. As one federal appellate judge held in 1996, “The Constitution simply does not require police to gamble with their lives in the face of a serious threat of harm.” (Note: You can find more on use of force law from this UNC School of Government blog.)

Still, while the law offers some bright lines, it is complex and open to interpretation, which makes the decision to pull a firearm trigger complicated, Tilmon said.

“That's where a lot of people think that police are just dumb robots, a blue-collar job, not a profession, anybody can do this job [...] I will say that is a false assumption. This is a profession. that's a difficult decision to make. You have to understand the law and you have to be right, because if you're wrong, you're going to jail,” Tilmon said.

After a shooting

Accountability for law enforcement is a major issue, both for the public and internally within law enforcement culture and specific agencies. The process takes several forms: an internal review, an external investigation by the state, and — in the situation Tilmon alluded to — possible criminal prosecution.

At WPD, officers have to formally report every use of force, including discharging a firearm, which are reviewed by Internal Affairs (known as Professional Standards at some agencies). IA deals primarily with whether or not the use of force did or didn’t comply with the agency's policy — or if the policy doesn’t cover it.

The results of IA investigations often don’t become public, although WPD does release annual reports of statistical data, like the number of incidents, the number of violations or disciplinary actions, without identifying personnel information. It is public if an officer involved in a shooting is demoted or suspended without pay. Officers are sometimes transferred after a shooting incident, but that’s not necessarily a disciplinary move.

In the case where an officer discharges a firearm and someone is injured or killed, it’s common practice for the agency and the local District Attorney to request an independent review by the State Bureau of Investigation.

At this point, officers are routinely placed on paid administrative leave — which is not an indication that the department believes there was any wrongdoing.

According to Willett, the SBI conducts its investigation separately from IA.

“They are separate from our [IA] detectives doing their investigation, they don’t collude, and they have nothing to do with the IA investigation — and IA has nothing to do with the SBI investigation,” Willett said.

Willett, who worked in IA for two years as a Sergeant, addressed concerns he hears about “cops investigating cops.”

“A lot of people don’t want to believe this — I understand, America’s a free country — but we actually do a really good job of policing our job,” Willett said. “If a police officer in Knoxville, Tennessee does something stupid and makes national TV — we’re suffering for that. We’re going to hear that in Wilmington … it's cliche, but good cops don't like bad cops. It makes life hard.”

There are situations where law enforcement officers face criminal charges, which are usually prosecuted by an outside prosecutor appointed by the Council of District Attorneys.

It’s worth noting that, even in cases of justifiable shootings, where officers are cleared of both policy and criminal violations, there are other, more personal, consequences for pulling the trigger.

“I can tell you that in my career, I've experienced numerous situations where we've had officer-involved shootings and the officer's career did not survive that shooting,” Tilmon said, referring to the psychological ramifications of injuring or killing someone as a police officer.

“One … specifically comes to mind. And the officer that was involved in that shooting could not continue on in his career. And he was a good guy: a kid from the mountains, he went to church every Sunday, and he never could come to grips, and still hasn't been able to, because I still keep in touch with him, to the fact that he had killed somebody. He had a crisis of conscience about it. Now, that's not to say every officer is going to be like that, but he that's how he dealt with it. It was very difficult for him, even though he was justified,” Tilmon said.

Challenges for Special Teams and SWAT

Special Teams and SWAT are called out to some of the most challenging situations faced by law enforcement: active shooters, hostage situations and standoffs, serving warrants to potentially dangerous suspects, bomb threats, and more.

But there are other, more pervasive and systemic challenges faced by law enforcement, too.

Over the last four years, law enforcement agencies around the country have struggled to recruit and retain staff. It’s a complicated situation, driven by changes in the labor market and the ever-dwindling supply of affordable housing, the stresses of the Covid pandemic, cultural upheaval in police departments and Sheriff’s offices in the wake of the George Floyd murder, and negative press coverage of law enforcement in general.

“It's detrimental, and it is something that does concern us. I mean, I think that's just being real,” Willett said concerning staffing challenges. He added that an additional challenge is making sure that veteran officers are spread throughout the department — instead of stacked in the upper administration — to prevent a lack of experience on patrol.

While departments nationwide are struggling with staffing, Willett said WPD is putting a “lot of focus on hiring the right people,” to avoid the pressure to simply fill positions. There is also an additional psychological screening level for SWAT members.

“We don't want nut jobs doing this,” Willett said. “We don’t want narcissists. We don’t want anybody that’s in it for the wrong reasons.”

“Tackleberries,” Tilmon called them, referring to Police Academy’s Eugene Tackleberry, who joins the police force in an attempt to recreate the experience of military combat (played for laughs in the movies — but a deeply problematic motive in real life). 

At the same time, however, SWAT has not struggled with staffing. Tilmon said officers can stay in SWAT as long as they want — provided they continue to qualify — and many officers have stayed for much of their careers.

“Right now we don't have a problem with staffing our SWAT team, which is a good problem,” Tilmon said.

Tons of guns

Tilmon, LaChappelle, and Willett all agreed that SWAT has been coming up against more serious firepower in recent years: more rifles, more fully automatic weapons, and the increasing prevalence of auto-sear or “Glock switches” — relatively easily manufactured devices that allow certain handguns to be converted from semiautomatic to fully automatic. Combined with extended magazines, LaChapelle said, “that’s a deadly situation.”

Willet said the change has been pronounced since ShotSpotter — a system of acoustic sensors placed around Wilmington, designed to detect gunfire — was implemented and now.

“I can tell you when ShotSpotter came about in like 2011, in my time on the street, when ShotSpotter would go off and you’d have four or five rounds, and you’re like, ‘oh, damn,” Willett said.

“Now we’re seeing 50 rounds,” LaChapelle said.

“Yeah, back then, anytime you got like 15 rounds, you were like, ‘Oh my God,’ and now it’s not really uncommon to get a lot of rounds shot, and it’s usually like the Glock switches or something like that,” Willett said.

LaChapelle added that the uptick in more powerful firearms is a key reason he thinks ShotSpotter is important, because officers can actually listen to audio recordings of shootings and develop an idea of what they’re up against.

Being forewarned helps — but the increased firepower on the streets is still a challenge. According to Willett, that’s why WPD has put a lot of investigative work into firearm offenses.

It’s worth noting that many of the guns — sometimes with modifications — that show up in firearm-related crimes have been stolen from cars, often unlocked cars, Willett said. Willet acknowledged some frustration with people who don’t secure their firearms.

“I don't mind sharing how I feel about it. Dude, if you want to carry a gun legally, do it. You know what I'm saying? There's the Constitution. It's not against the law. Carry a gun legally. If you ride around with a gun in your car because you feel like you want to or you need to, cool, but at the end of the day, like when you're done, take it inside. You don't leave it in the console,” he said.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.