The Wilmington Police Department and the city's mayor addressed Tuesday the WPD's use of surveillance technologies.
Last week, WECT discovered the New Hanover County Public Defender's office was investigating the department's use of Stingray surveillance equipment that had been purchased for hundreds of thousands of dollars over multiple years.
Local lawyers questioned the practice, but on Tuesday, city officials vocalized their support of the surveillance efforts.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said the equipment is seldom used, and when it is handled, it's done safely.
"It's not wire tapping. It's not eavesdropping on anybody's phone conversations," Saffo explained. "The only thing we can use it for is to locate cell phones or where that cell phone is on someone's body."
The mayor explained that the WPD uses this cell phone tracking equipment only after obtaining a court order, and that those court orders could be found through public record requests.
Saffo said the department has used this stingray technology to not only find suspects, but also missing persons.
"It is also being used to find people that are sick like (a) gentleman that had Alzheimer that just walked away but had his cell phone. Thank God he did because we were able to find and locate him using that cell phone technology," explained Saffo.
The mayor said the public does not need to worry about their privacy being violated. He said he specifically asked Wilmington's police chief and city attorney if this practice is legal and justified. He explained that it is because court orders are obtained.
"We have to follow proper procedure and if we don't we're going to get called on it and we could jeopardize an entire case if we don't obtain that information properly so we're sensitive to it," Saffo elaborated. "We understand how important it is. We also understand everybody's civil liberties and freedoms too so we're walking a very tight rope here."
Mayor Saffo said he was not sure whether or not the WPD signed a non-disclosure clause when purchasing this equipment from the Harris Corporation. Such a clause would prevent the department from disclosing use of the technology.
The Wilmington Police Department released the following statement Tuesday regarding its use of the equipment.
Location information is a vital component of law enforcement investigations at the federal, state and local levels. As a general matter, the Wilmington Police Department does not discuss specific techniques used by law enforcement to obtain location information, as they are considered investigative sensitive, the public release of which could harm law enforcement efforts at all levels by compromising future use of the technique. The Wilmington Police only collects and maintains information that has investigative value and relevance to a case, and such data is retained in accordance with controlling State Law. The Wilmington Police does not keep repositories of cell tower data for any purpose other than in connection with a specific investigation. The collection of cell tower records is only performed after required Wilmington Police approvals are received in the specific investigation, and only after the appropriate court order is obtained from a court. If the records obtained are deemed relevant, the specific records are made part of the investigative case file.
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