Thermal-imaging gear gives law enforcement power to see in darkness

2012-02-04T00:15:00Z 2014-08-25T14:10:17Z Thermal-imaging gear gives law enforcement power to see in darknessBy ZACH BENOIT The Billings Gazette

A suspected drunken driver crashed a car in Lockwood last March and ran away before anybody showed up.

In January, a couple near Laurel reported that a man tried to break into their home and damaged a pickup truck before taking off into a nearby field.

While separate incidents, both cases have something in common: the suspects bolted into the night before law enforcement arrived, trying to hide under the cover of darkness.

And each time, deputies with the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office quickly found them — without spotlights or flashlights — with the help of thermal-imaging gear that lets them see in complete darkness.

"It's a really good tool, and it's an officer safety thing," said Lt. Vince Wallis.

It's the kind of equipment you'd expect to see in a high-tech spy film: an officer points a cameralike device and, either through a viewfinder or on an onboard computer screen, a clear, detailed image of the area pops up.

But instead of the colors normally seen, the image is in blacks, whites and grays. The warmer an object is, the brighter it gets, standing out against everything around it, even in pitch-black conditions, but with enough detail to make out features on someone's face or the undercarriage of a car.

Both the Billings Police Department and sheriff's office have thermal-imaging equipment — which picks up and displays heat signatures by reading infrared radiation — although each uses it in different capacities.

The BPD has a single, handheld Raytheon unit a little bigger than a football that's used primarily by the SWAT team. They bought it about 10 years ago with money from a federal grant.

"It definitely has its uses," said Sgt. Casey Hafner, SWAT team commander. "It could very much be a life-saving instrument."

He said officers use it in a number of situations, including during SWAT raids by attaching it to a pole hooked up to a portable screen to check out dark attics and corners.

"As opposed to sticking your head up into an attic, you can do it that way," Hafner said. "It's great for that because this way the officer isn't exposed when they check it out."

Using money in 2010 from a $197,000 U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant, the sheriff's office purchased eight Flir brand handheld thermal-imaging units — costing $5,000 apiece — and 42 Noptic units at $4,200 each for every patrol car. The Noptic cameras are mounted on a spotlight on the driver's side, can rotate 360 degrees and send a live video feed to the vehicle's onboard computer.

"You have coverage almost all of the time," Wallis said. "The good thing is we've got them on every car. I'm pretty sure the deputies use them nightly."

He rattled off nearly a dozen different uses for the equipment, including search and rescue, finding suspects, spotting recently driven vehicles, surveillance, finding dropped evidence and vehicle crash investigations.

"We've already used it for quite a few things," he said.

On May 27, two women died when the car they were in plunged off of Zimmerman Trail. At first, officials could only find one of the victims but thermal-imaging gear used by both the BPD and sheriff's office were able to track down the second.

Several minutes of recorded video from the 2010 Lockwood crash shows a deputy searching the area using the car-mounted imaging equipment. In the video, the deputy is scanning nearby neighborhoods for the driver.

Eventually, the deputy begins focusing on a hilly area near a cluster of homes and one bright spot — indicating heat — in particular. As the deputy slowly scans the area, the spot moves, indicating somebody poked his head out from a hiding spot.

Another deputy can then be seen walking along a trail to where the suspect was hiding.

"I think as time goes on we'll find more and more uses for them," Wallis said. "They're great because there really isn't a range with these things. If there's a plane flying above you and it's clear, you can spot the plane."

While it's a great tool for law enforcement, the technology does have some limitations.

For starters, it can't see through walls. So unless there's an extreme difference in temperature between an object and the wall it's next to, it won't show up.

The devices also can't see through windows. Since glass generally bounces the infrared radiation back, if you point one at a window, you're likely to see your own reflection peering back.

While the sheriff's office's gear works in all types of light, the police department's unit isn't effective in well-lit areas.

"There are very few places within the City of Billings that you're not going to have some kind of illumination," said Police Chief Rich St. John. "I think there are a lot more applications out in the county where it's not as urban."

Despite those limitations, officers and deputies feel the thermal-imaging equipment adds an effective, reliable tool to their belts.

Wallis said the sheriff's office doesn't keep track of the number of times deputies use the equipment but that other departments around the country have seen increases in arrest rates once they began using them.

Even though the BPD uses its thermal imager far less often, officials say they're glad it's available and that nearby agencies use them.

"We want to be as prepared as we can for every possible contingency that we might face," St. John said. "Especially here, where you might be out with some very difficult terrain, I think that equipment helps things really jump out when you're trying to find a needle in a haystack. It saves a lot of wear and tear."



Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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