Monday, March 11, 2013

A drone makes its debut

The American Civil Liberties Union wants a closer look at how police departments are using unmanned aerial vehicles and other military technology originally intended for use overseas.  

But some in North Carolina have had a close look at how they work -- and how they don't.  

As a reporter covering Gaston County in 2006, I was at the commissioners meeting when police got approval to buy the $30,000 drone. And I was there a month later when it failed its debut.  

Several things went wrong. At some point, the rudder broke on the craft and it couldn't turn left. It also stopped responding to the global positioning signals that guide it.  

So instead of seeing a display of aeronautic innovation, we saw a grey fuselage slowly disappearing into the horizon. At the end of the demonstration, operators had to essentially crash-land the Cyberbug in a field away from the cameras.  

Gaston County Police believed that for the price of a patrol car, they had purchased a substitute for a police helicopter -- a device that could track marijuana growing fields or help search for runaways. Then-Chief Bill Farley even suggested that other county departments could use the device to, say, get aerial pictures or video of ongoing construction. 

After it crashed, county police told us we were seeing a glitch. In a story the next day, I wrote: "Farley asserts that the police department and the county have a valuable tool. They just have to work out the bugs and get officers more training, he said." 

But seven years later, the Cyberbug has never been used outside of training.

Unmanned aerial vehicles have come far since that flight.  According to the New York Times, the Pentagon has about 7,000 unmanned drones, up from 50 a decade ago. And the makers of the Cyberbug have updated the device

Last week, the city of Monroe gave approval for its police department to buy a drone. So we may see another debut soon. -- Cleve R. Wootson Jr. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Fired officer's case provides inside look at how CMPD disciplines officers

A rare public view of a fired officer's attempt to keep his job may motivate other officers in trouble to open their appeal hearings, according to the president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg fraternal order of police.

Last week, the Charlotte Civil Service Board upheld the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's decision to fire Chuck Adkins, a former captain who had worked in Internal Affairs, Communications and in the watch commander's office.

Stories about the appeal hearing were broadcast on TV and written about in the paper, and watched closely by the department's nearly 1,800 sworn officers.

The department said Adkins broke CMPD policy by failing to immediately alert law enforcement officers about his Sept. 19 conversation with a woman who came to his home while he was in his garage, with his marked CMPD cruiser parked outside.

Adkins took the unusual step of asking that his Civil Service Board hearing be open to the public. He also notified several media outlets, including the Observer, about the hearing. (Officers who are disciplined by the department can appeal to the civil service board. Disciplined officers can also request that their hearings be open to the public, though most don't.)

In an e-mail to the Observer, Adkins said "I hope members of the media will attend as several CMPD employees who feel they were unjustly 'targeted' in the past plan on attending part or all of this hearing."

Adkins wasn't a member of the Fraternal Order of Police, which sometimes helps pay the legal costs of officers accused of wrongdoing by the department.

But Todd Walther, a CMPD sergeant and the president of the FOP, said Adkins' case could motivate other officers to elect to have open hearings.

"It allows the community to see them as a real human being instead of just a uniform," Walther said. "It's not a secret. We make mistakes just like anyone. I think in an open forum, it could be positive to show that we're not just a badge and a gun." --Cleve R. Wootson Jr.