It had been raining pretty much all day, with the rain seeming to intensify as third shift headed in for roll call. We are fortunate enough to have take-home cars, so we are in uniform and in patrol cars when we head to roll call. And on the way in, a call was dispatched just a few buildings down from our roll call center.
The security manager at the nearby shopping center was following a suspect from a hit-and-run accident. Apparently impaired by alcohol, she drove onto a median in the shopping center, damaging some shrubs and stranding her vehicle. When the manager arrived and mentioned calling the police, she took off into the rain and darkness. The manager followed, trying to keep her in sight, but lost her behind some commercial buildings.
As I was driving down the street when the call went out, I "jumped" the call. A few of my shift mates were on the road as well and joined me.
Lost in the Mud
The woman had run behind the commercial buildings and disappeared. There were numerous shrubs, trees, vans, storage sheds and fences. The backside of the buildings met a steep slope that led up to chain link fence topped by barbed wire. We swept the area with flashlights, attempting to find her in the downpour.
The slope was extremely muddy and slippery. We doubted that she could have successfully negotiated her way up the hill, so we concentrated on trying to locate a static hiding spot. We looked over, around and under almost everything. But the shadows and rain made it a difficult task. We were starting to wonder if she had gone up the hill, so I made a few tentative steps up it. That effort led me to almost fall on my face twice, so we resigned ourselves to the fact that if she had scurried up the slope, she had gotten away.
Gaining the Edge
We spent five or ten minutes trying to locate her with our flashlights. I then decided to work smarter, not harder. I retrieved the thermal imager from my cruiser and began scanning the area. Since it was raining and cool, I figured a warm human body would light up like a beacon on the TI. Considering that she was last seen wearing shorts and a t-shirt, I was confident that she would not be hiding much heat from the TI.
As I scanned behind one of the businesses, the security manager thought he heard something a couple of buildings north. He then called out that he thought she was along a fence line backed up against a tree line. We ran up there to see if our search was over. When I got to the fence line, I scanned along it with the TI. There on the display, clear as day, I could see the complete outline of a person huddled against the fence in the dark. I also was able to see that her hands were empty and that she did not appear to have any weapons (makeshift or otherwise) at her disposal.
So without even shining a flashlight on her, we not only identified where she was, but determined she was unarmed. We ordered her out from the darkness. She stumbled along the fence line, emerging from the shadows looking like a muddy, wet rat.
As you might imagine, she initially denied being in the car. Then she wasn't driving the car, but knew who was. In the end, she was charged with driving on a suspended license, leaving the scene of an accident, and DUI. Sure, none of these are felonies, but it was nice for the good guys to win another one. We might have found her without the TI, but there is no doubt that the TI made it easier and safer for us.
Plus, we didn't have to stomp through the mud and get our boots dirty.