Seeing through to the hot spots

Amid falling costs and improved features, law enforcement may be able to find a few more reasons to pick up a thermal imaging camera


     "Ultimately, when our volumes go up for a company like BMW, it allows us to bring our prices down for everybody else, like law enforcement," says Teich.

     Practical application

     Thermal imaging as a tool can benefit officers in many ways, as heat patterns show up with precise clarity over a long range, sometimes up to a mile and a half. The most popular use continues to be large area searches or locating wanderers, lost hikers, suicides, etc. And in this, it can sometimes mean the difference between life or death. Burdette reports he regularly sees lost hikers or suicide cases in Los Angeles' mountainous cliffs and along the vast shoreline. "It will take hours and hours to search [these areas] by hand," he says, "and you can literally search it within minutes with a thermal imaging camera."

     Rob Lowe, sales manager at Nivisys, recommends SWAT and tactical teams combine thermal imaging and night vision technology for even greater capabilities in open-area searches, stating, "The two work together and complement each other very well; they can both be frequently weapons-mounted and helmet-mounted, giving operating teams a lot of flexibility."

     "It's a good way to bring out a picture when you're looking at a scene;" adds Det. Christopher Gandy of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. "As soon as something hot shows up, it kind of jumps out of the screen at you," Gandy's crew uses the imagers daily on helicopters, and regularly in hostage/barricade situations. During the day, he finds the cameras do not experience the glare or react to bright flashes the way a regular camera might.

     Another big use for thermal is using it to gain more information from vehicles. Users can detect heat signatures left by hot tires, exhaust, engine compartments and anything that retains heat on a vehicle. Thus, it is especially easy for users to determine which vehicle has recently been in operation.

     Whether searching for a car or a person, thermal can cover much more ground than foot patrol in a short amount of time, which is why LAPD counts on it daily to help patrol its Port of LA, an area that presents serious risks as a target for terrorists.

     "You've got a huge area where you have ships, shipping containers, oil refineries and a lot of things that are infrastructure protection," says Burdette. "Where it would take a tremendous amount to time to check the area any other way, with a thermal imaging camera you can very quickly and efficiently check where you would otherwise just never get your eyes on."

     Agencies continue to find more ways to use thermal technology; it can prove effective in a number of SWAT, patrol, tactical and even narcotic operations. Lowe recalls a case where one California-based law enforcement agency used a thermal imaging unit as part of the probable cause justification for getting a search warrant for a marijuana grow operation inside of a home. Recorded video showed a succession of houses within the neighborhood of the target house. They then used the thermal device to take a heat signature and record the image from the five or six surrounding houses, as well as the target house. Because the grow operation required more light than an average house would, there was a definite discrepancy in the level of heat that was detected on the target house compared to its neighbors. Lowe states that in fact "The information and the video were presented to the judge in order to get an affidavit for a search warrant for that home."

     A force multiplier

     As the price tag for thermal devices continues to shrink, users can get a better quality and more stable camera for a lower price. That's not to say they're an easy buy, and one per cruiser is probably not an option. Grant monies may be one way for small departments to purchase at least one or two units.

     Those who already use the technology on a daily basis feel the advantages are priceless. Not only do thermal imaging cameras have life-saving potential, such as finding people quickly in heavily wooded areas — they can also significantly lessen the burden on patrol officers by cutting search times, uncovering hiding spots and minimizing danger, ultimately saving departments money in the long run.

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