Cole Burdette, chief tactical flight officer with the Los Angeles Police Department Air Support Division remembers the day a few years back when a supermarket robbery quickly turned into a heated shoot-out between suspects and surveillance officers. Two of the suspects were shot, recalls Burdette. "One officer remained in the car and one ran out into the perimeter with the remaining suspects. So we have one suspect who's down in the car upon our arrival, and we have three suspects outstanding."
Helicopter and search teams quickly went to work, setting a large perimeter of about seven blocks. When Burdette arrived on scene in a helicopter equipped with a thermal imaging camera, they quickly spotted the first suspect attempting to break into a house and alerted officers to his location. Meanwhile, two more men remained at large.
"You could just imagine, suspects that are known to be armed and you've just been in a shoot-out with them, and now you've got K-9 handlers and SWAT officers going in. The level of danger [the officers] are involved in is great," says Burdette. Within 5 minutes of being in station, search crews located one suspect hiding in bushes behind a garage. They spotted the next suspect on the roof of another garage, crouching beneath a tree.
Burdette credits the thermal imaging device with helping officers locate the suspects quickly and with little additional danger to ground patrol. "Because of the [thermal imaging device] they were able to coax him out and take him into custody without further incident."
Thermal imaging cameras aren't just for SWAT teams anymore. Aside from use in search and rescue missions, the cameras can locate "hot" cars and even detect potential grow operations. Law enforcement agencies take note: Once considered an expensive albeit useful tool, today's units are falling in cost and at the same time, adding more features to their list.
Everything in the world has infrared energy in it. Thermal technology allows users to capture and view a heat signature, while an electric process transfers that signature to a visual image. Unlike night vision, thermal imaging can "see through" smoke and dust, and is not restricted by vegetation and light brush. The device can be used anytime — day or night — and its picture continues to get sharper. Andy Teich, president of Commercial Vision Systems at FLIR, says the first thing users will likely notice about newer models is that the imaging performance is four times the resolution of cameras previously on the market.
"You can think of it sort of like a digital camera," Teich says in terms of quality improvement. He also notes units have other built-in electronic features like digital wireless transmission, which allows users to transmit video to remote locations, onboard image storage for JPEG images and movie recording.
In addition to clearer pictures and added features, new designs are also touting all-in-one use on a number of applications. ATN offers thermal imaging systems that can be handheld or put on a goggle system for hands-free operation. Some systems can also be weapons-mountable, helmet-mountable and used as a weapons sight. James Munn, executive vice president of American Technologies Network, Corp. (ATN) out of San Francisco, also notes they are consistently "working on getting the unit smaller and more compact."
The recent trend of adding thermal imaging capabilities to civilian vehicles is partly responsible for driving the high volume for the technology — somewhat like what happened with the GPS boom — which is good news for law enforcement folks. "Infrared imaging technology is going through very much the same process right now [as GPS]," says Teich. "It went through a dual-use phase where it was being used by the industry in the '90s, and in the last couple years it's moved into the consumer space where we're selling it to boaters, and we have a contract with BMW where it's used as an application that allows you to see five-times further than your high beam headlights. We have software running that will automatically detect if a pedestrian or animal is venturing towards the vehicles and alerts the driver.
"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.
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.
Burdette calls it a "force multiplier," saying: "If you can minimize the amount of time [patrol officers] are at the scene, based on finding the suspect pretty quickly, it really makes a big difference when they can get back to their other duties. As a force multiplier, in an agency like ours that has a limited number of resources, it really gives us more bang for our buck."
And for those who are on the fence about thermal imaging, or perhaps those who are playing the waiting game, Teich has this to offer: "Do I think this thing will be even less expensive three years from now? Yeah, it probably will.
"But that's three years of letting bad guys go in the dark."