How officers used new technology to capture the Raleigh shooter



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“Very well, we moved with a drone.”

“We are going to be in a holding pattern until we have another robot.”

In the hours after a gunman killed five people and wounded two others in and around Raleigh’s Hedingham neighborhood on Oct. 13, police officers relied on two emerging technologies to track down and ultimately neutralize the suspected killer. .

Radio traffic obtained by The News & Observer shows the integral role drones and robots played in assessing the suspect’s condition and ultimately separating him from his weapons. It was a modern response to the crisis made possible, experts say, by recent advances, lower costs, reallocated budget spending and a change to state law in the mid-2010s.

“Any time officers can put a piece of machinery or technology in an area, before they have to put a human body in that area, it’s always advantageous,” said Larry Smith, former deputy chief of police for the Durham Police Department. . “In those situations, an active shooter, that the suspect has already shown a willingness to kill.”

calling the drone

Shortly before 7:00 p.m., nearly two hours after the violence began, officers had cornered the teen suspect inside a barn a mile northeast of the neighborhood. They then wanted to get an image of the suspect, confirmed by the sources as 15-year-old Austin Thompson.

During the radio exchange, unidentified officers directed the drone operators on how to obtain that image.

“If you’re flying that drone, if you can come down here and fly into that barn for us and just have some eyes inside that barn,” an officer said at 6:58 p.m.

“If you can get a clear, just drop it in front of that barn,” another officer advised. “Once you’re below the tree line, you’ll be able to see it: It’s a blue barn with a tin roof, and if you can get into the barn.”

The drone being maneuvered was most likely a quadcopter, a four-rotor drone, said Kuldeep Rawat, dean of Elizabeth City State University’s College of Science, Aviation, Health and Technology. The Raleigh Police Department did not identify the models of drones they used during the Oct. 13 police response, but Rawat, whose department offers North Carolina’s only four-year unmanned aircraft systems program and has previously helped Elizabeth City law enforcement officials during emergencies said a quadcopter is ideal for operating within a wooded area.

“The quadcopter is probably the most common, very popular and easy to launch, easy to transport,” he said. “You can just fold it open and throw it.”

Quadcopters can be equipped with cameras, speakers or thermal lenses that detect heat sources such as bodies. The price of these drones has come down in recent years, Rawat said, as new manufacturers have entered the market.

“I won’t say everyone has it, but the (agencies) that are well funded and cover a larger ground, they have that technology,” he said.

Historically, a China-based manufacturer called DJI produced many of the drones used by law enforcement, but DJI has seen its sizeable market share decline as US government agencies now look to buy domestically designed and produced drones.

‘Drone is about 15 feet away from him’

Once officers had a drone inside the barn, they wanted to determine the condition of the suspect. According to radio traffic, Thompson appeared slumped over and exhibited little movement.

At approximately 7:18 p.m., an officer is heard asking “if you can put that drone directly on him and see if you can get a reaction.”

Another officer soon reports that the “drone is about 15 feet from him.”

“We have zero movement,” that same officer continued. “I’ll take a screenshot and send it to you.”

Police soon saw that the suspect was still moving. Thompson, they said, was pulling the trigger on the shotgun he had in his possession, but to no effect.

This rapid deployment of drones was made possible, in part, by a late 2015 change in North Carolina’s law on unmanned aircraft systems. Prior to that time, state and local government agencies had to obtain permission from the state Chief Information Officer before they could “acquire or operate” unmanned aircraft.

“It was kind of a new technology, and the state was eager for it and wanted to have some kind of central oversight process,” said Jeff Welty, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Government who has researched the rise of drones. in law enforcement.

North Carolina lawmakers allowed this approval statute to expire in December 2015. Today, state and local law enforcement must comply with Federal Aviation Administration regulations when flying drones. The law also limits the deployment of drones if authorities have a court order or during emergency situations.

Welty said law enforcement began using drones more frequently after the law change, which he stressed has raised concerns about personal freedoms, property rights and surveillance. However, he said the Hedingham fire response appears to have been an ideal example of how drones can provide vital reconnaissance in an emergency without endangering officers.

BEARS on stage. The robots get a gun.

At 7:23 p.m., officers reported that their drone “had just crashed.” They immediately asked for another type of technology.

“If we can get a robot to us, we’re going to need it,” an officer is heard saying over radio traffic from the scanner archive service Broadcastify.

Just like drones, ground robots can be equipped with cameras. They can also be used to detect explosives, which officers were concerned the suspect might have had in a backpack. The officers planned to send a robot with a special grip to separate the firearms from the injured suspect.

While law enforcement waited for the right robots, they kept BEAR, or Ballistic Extraction and Rescue Vehicles, stationed outside the barn. According to the RPD special vehicle manual, BEARs are used as “a mobile shield during high-risk operations.”

Smith, who served as Durham’s deputy police chief from 2012 to 2016, said “it’s not uncommon for departments to have some type of vehicle like (a BEAR) just for that type of situation.”

He recalled that the heavily armored vehicles, similar to BEARs, became controversial after the public saw them roll through St. Louis neighborhoods during public unrest following the 2014 murder of Michael Brown. But Smith maintains that BEARS have instead, saying that “if you can’t drive something in there that you can put between the shooter and your officers or your citizens, then they stay there and die.”

A Highway Patrol trooper (left) and a Raleigh police officer provide security around EMS vehicles at the scene of a mass shooting in the Hedingham neighborhood, Thursday afternoon, Oct. 13, 2022. Photograph by Delmas Cooper

At 8:46 p.m., officers said a Wake County Sheriff’s Office robot would approach the suspect’s firearm. Around 25 minutes later, the clawed robot was inside the barn and prepared to move Thompson’s weapons away.

“Keep the robot that is currently on the firearm, because that prevents it from getting it,” an officer said. “Once you get your robot into position and you can get that claw on that firearm, we’ll ask you to remove the firearm with that robot.”

The radio traffic then has long periods of silence, punctuated with updates on the suspect’s movements.

“Take the robot and lift it up,” an officer said. Get it out of that backpack.

When first responders finally reached the teen shortly after 9:30 p.m., they reported a serious head injury. It was discovered that he had a pistol in his waistband and a shotgun was on the ground.

Emergency medical services transported Thompson to WakeMed. A police report released Thursday says she remains in critical condition.

Tyler Dukes and Lars Dolder contributed to this report.

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.

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This story was originally published October 20, 2022 3:57 p.m.

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Brian Gordon is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He writes about jobs, startups, and all things big tech transforming the Triangle.


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