The Marana Police Department has a new tool in their efforts to keep the town’s streets safe. Five patrol vehicles are now equipped with state-of-the-art thermal imagers.
The imagers have a variety of uses, including searching for suspects, vehicles, missing persons, and evidence. The devices allow officers to see people and objects giving off heat, which is especially effective at night where visibility is limited.
Previously this technology was only available on police aircraft and a few handheld units. Now officers with the thermal technology can search an area without leaving the vehicle.
The thermal image appears on the in-car computers. The image is black and white, but the warmer the object the lighter the color. A person would appear much brighter than the surrounding area. A car that had just been driven would appear to be much brighter on screen than parked cars near it that had not been driven recently.
The equipment was purchased using funds awarded to the Marana Police Department through an Operation Stonegarden grant from the US/AZ Department of Homeland Security. Each unit costs around $4,000 and if they prove effective the department would consider purchasing more, especially if there was some more grant money available.
“We are the first agency in Southern Arizona to use these,” said Chris Warren, Marana Police Department’s Public Information Officer. “If they prove to be a useful tool and as good as they say they are going to be then we will look at buying more.”
So far all five units are mounted 4-Wheel Drive SUV’s and there is a specific reason why.
“The reason they are attached to four-wheel drives is that they can go anywhere,” said Sgt. Jake Shumate, whose vehicle is equipped with one of the units. “They are cheaper than the hand held versions or the air versions.”
A handheld unit can cost upwards of $10,000, while air support is not always available. “We don’t always have an air unit available,” explained Warren. “Here in Marana we don’t have an air unit, we have to rely on another agency to send one.”
There are some misconceptions about what the police can use the thermal imagers for and what their limitations are. They cannot just randomly scan houses and look for heat signatures that might indicate a drug operation.
“This isn’t a big brother thing, this isn’t to look inside houses and see what people are doing,” said Warren. “We can’t see people in houses, we can’t see people in cars.”
“We can’t put it on a residence to determine if there is a lot of heat coming off of it for drug investigations,” added Shumate. “There is actual established case law that says you can’t do that because you are penetrating the inside of the home. Although the device cannot see through walls, it will pull heat from inside of residences.”
Officers go through training on what is and is not allowed to be done with the units.
The units themselves cannot see though objects and cannot “see” though glass. They can indicate if there is heat inside or behind a cooler object, but that is it. Glass just reflects right back at the unit.
There are a number of different uses. The most common is in surveillance and suspect apprehension. The unit can help locate a suspect at night without the officer having to give up his position by shining light in the area. By having the units inside a vehicle they can scan an area much quicker than if they had to use a hand-held on foot. By staying in the vehicle, the officer is also safer if he or she does confront a suspect.
“He can be completely blocked out and watch an area, without having to turn on his spotlight without giving up his position,” said Warren.
The system can also be used in a search and rescue operation, whether it is locating a missing person, or even trying to locate someone thrown from a vehicle during a crash. It can also be used in accident reconstruction, as tires can give off heat that can be seen with the thermal imager, when there might not be any markings visible to the naked eye.
“It is used to find people whether they are injured, suspects, missing, etc. in an open area,” said Shumate.
In an open area it can see movement at least 400 yards away, and even 500 yards away if the movement is pronounced.
The units themselves are mounted on the spotlight on the side of the vehicle and they have great maneuverability. The video from the units can be recorded and if properly documented and submitted into evidence, it can be used in court.