Raleigh shooting coverage
Seven people were shot in Raleigh, NC, near the Neuse River Greenway Trail. Five were killed, including a Raleigh police officer. Check back for the latest updates from The N&O’s breaking news team.
“Alright, we’re moving in with a drone.”
“We’re going to be in a hold pattern until we get another robot.”
In the hours after a gunman killed five people and injured two others in and near Raleigh’s Hedingham neighborhood on Oct. 13, police officers leaned 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 had in assessing the suspect’s condition and ultimately separating him from his weapons. It was a modern crisis response made possible, experts say, by recent advancements, lower costs, reallocated budget spending, and a mid-2010s change to state law.
“Whenever officers can put a piece of machinery or technology in an area, before they have to put a human body in that area, is always advantageous,” said Larry Smith, a former deputy police chief for the Durham Police Department. “In those situations, an active shooter, that the suspect has already shown a willingness to kill.”
Calling in the drone
Shortly before 7 p.m., nearly two hours after the violence began, officers had cornered the teen suspect inside a barn about a mile northeast of the neighborhood. They then wanted to get a visual of the suspect, confirmed by sources to be 15-year-old Austin Thompson.
Throughout the radio exchange, unidentified officers directed drone operators on how to get that visual.
“If you’re flying that drone, if you can get down here and fly in that barn for us and just get some eyes inside that barn,” one officer said at 6:58 p.m.
“If you can get a clearing, just drop it down in front of that barn,” another officer advised. “Once you get below the tree line, you’ll be able to see it — it’s a blue barn with a tin roof on it, and if you can get inside the barn.”
The drone being maneuvered was most likely a quadcopter, a four-rotor unmanned aircraft, said Kuldeep Rawat, dean of Elizabeth City State University’s School 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 assisted Elizabeth City law enforcement during emergencies, said a quadcopter is ideal for operating within a forested area.
“The quadcopter is probably the most common one — very popular and easy to launch, easy to carry,” he said. “You can just fold it, open it and launch.”
Quadcopters may be equipped with cameras, speakers or thermal lens that detect heat sources like bodies. The price tag on these drones has come down in recent years, Rawat said, as new manufacturers have entered the market.
“I won’t say everybody has it, but the (agencies) that are well-funded and cover a larger ground, they have that technology,” he said.
Historically, a Chinese-based manufacturer named DJI produced many of the drones used by law enforcement, but DJI has seen its sizable market share dwindle as American government agencies now seek to buy drones designed and produced domestically.
‘Drone is about 15 feet from him’
Once officers had a drone inside the barn, they wanted to determine the suspect’s condition. According to the 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 right 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’m going to screenshot and send it to you.”
Law enforcement soon saw the suspect was still moving. Thompson, they said, was pulling the trigger of the shotgun in his possession, but to no effect.
This rapid deployment of drones was made possible, in part, by a late 2015 change to North Carolina’s law around unmanned aircraft systems. Before that time, state and local government agencies had to obtain permission from the state Chief Information Officer before they could “procure or operate” unmanned aircraft.
“It was kind of a new technology, and the state was anxious about 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 legislators allowed this approval statute to expire in December 2015. Today, state and local law enforcement must adhere to Federal Aviation Administration regulations when flying drones. The law also limits drone deployment if authorities either have a warrant or during emergency situations.
Welty said law enforcement began using drones more frequently after the law change, which he emphasized has raised concerns around personal liberties, property rights and surveillance. Yet he did say the Hedingham shooting response appears to have been an ideal example of how unmanned aircraft can provide vital reconnaissance in an emergency without endangering officers.
BEARS on the scene. Robots get a gun.
At 7:23 p.m., officers reported their drone “just crashed.” They immediately called for another type of technology.
“If we can get a robot to us, we’re going to need that,” an officer is heard saying over the radio traffic from the scanner archive service Broadcastify.
Like drones, ground robots can be equipped with cameras. They can also be used to detect explosives, which officers worried the suspect may have had in a backpack. The officers planned to send in a robot with a special grip to separate the firearms from the injured suspect.
As law enforcement waited for the proper robots, they kept BEARs, or ballistic extraction and rescue vehicles, positioned outside the barn. According to the RPD special vehicles handbook, 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 is “not uncommon for departments to have some type of vehicle like (a BEAR) for just that type of situation.”
He recalled heavily armored, BEAR-like vehicles becoming controversial after the public saw them roll through St. Louis neighborhoods during the public unrest that followed the 2014 killing of Michael Brown. But Smith contends BEARS have their place, saying “if you can’t drive something in there that you can put in between the shooter and your officers or your citizens, then they lay there and die.”
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 the weapons away from Thompson.
“Keep the robot that’s currently on the firearm on it, because that’s blocking him from getting it,” an officer said. “Once you get your robot in position and you can get that claw on that firearm, we’re going to have you remove the firearm with that robot on it.”
The radio traffic then has long periods of silence, punctuated with updates on the suspect’s movements.
“Get the robot and pull him upright,” one officer said. “Pull him away from that backpack.”
When responders finally reached the teen just after 9:30 p.m., they reported a severe head injury. He was found to have a handgun in his waistband and there was a shotgun on the ground.
Emergency medical services transported Thompson to WakeMed. A police report released Thursday said he remains in critical condition.
Tyler Dukes and Lars Dolder contributed to this reporting.
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.
This story was originally published October 20, 2022 3:57 PM.