Controversial device could make debut at Wells Fargo Championship

Controversial device could make debut at Wells Fargo Championship

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - A law enforcement tool that sparked protest from some in Wilmington recently could make its debut at the high profile Wells Fargo Championship in May at Eagle Point Golf Club.

The LRAD, an acronym for a long range acoustical device, is now in the toolbox for the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office. It's basically a souped-up megaphone that can broadcast messages, warnings and instructions from up to 1.86 miles away.

The sheriff's office acquired the device a couple weeks ago, but has not put it into use, according to Lt. Jerry Brewer. The office is still writing a policy on how it will be used.

The fact that the sheriff's office owned such a device didn't appear to be widely known until last week, when it was discussed at a Wilmington City Council agenda meeting. Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous lobbied council members to approve the use of $30,000 in federal forfeiture money to purchase an LRAD for the police department too.

But Evangelous ran into much more opposition than the sheriff's office when trying to get this purchase approved.  Council needed to pass the ordinance twice this month, with Councilman Earl Sheridan voting against it both times. Several community members emailed council and spoke up against the purchase of the LRAD for safety reasons.

"I've heard people say the device has been utilized to break up peaceful demonstrations, and that the device has a very loud decibel level that can hurt people's hearing and things of that nature," Earl Sheridan said in an earlier interview.

Evangelous was able to convince a majority of council to ultimately approve the purchase, stating the use of the LRAD was "purposefully misrepresented as a weapon."

But while the purchase for Wilmington sparked debate and discussion, the purchase in New Hanover County sailed under the radar.

In its last meeting of 2016, only six days before Christmas, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the purchase of the LRAD. No one from the community spoke against it. Commissioners didn't publicly discuss it.

It was approved among a litany of items on what's known as the consent agenda, which typically combines several smaller items that need commissioner approval but don't usually require much public conversation.

The word LRAD does not appear anywhere in the minutes of the December 19 board of commissioners meeting.

The wording only indicated the intention to use a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to pay for equipment for the sheriff's Civil Disturbance Unit. A couple commissioners indicated they were not aware the grant would be used to purchase the LRAD, but they would have been supportive had they known.

"If funding is in place for things, my view is that matters of public safety and the equipment necessary to effectuate it, it should be left to the professionally trained and experienced law enforcement officers.  If the Sheriff's office determined that an LRAD was needed in their inventory, then as long as funding was in place, I would support their decision and defer questions of need, etc. to them," Board Chairman Woody White said via email.

In keeping with the accreditation standards for the sheriff's department, the equipment will have a policy on use before being deployed.

"Having a policy raises my comfort level with it," Commissioner Rob Zapple said, who is also supportive of the purchase.

Commissioner Skip Watkins said there was a wish list of items deputies wanted with the DOJ grant, which was to include shields, helmets and protective hand wear, but the parameters of the grant would not allow it, so the sheriff's office chose the LRAD instead.

"So rather than lose the opportunity, the Sheriff went WAY down on the list and chose an LRAD. The LRAD was a "back burner" item. The NHCo Sheriff's Office chose this as a communication device," Watkins stated via email.

Watkins says the LRAD will be on hand for the PGA event in May, in case it's needed to communicate a weather warning or similar emergency event.

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