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The Long Arm From Above

By James T. McKenna | August 1, 2006
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A lone gunman, an ill-timed smoke and the "SWAT cat"--caught in law enforcement airborne imagers.

A highlight of the "Pig Pickin'" barbecue dinner at the annual Airborne Law Enforcement Assn. conference is the Vision Awards.

Presented by FLIR Systems, the awards honor aircrews that skillfully applied airborn-imagery search and tracking techniques, in close coordination with officers on the ground, to successfully complete law-enforcement missions like apprehension of felons. Missions employing all types of airborne video--infrared and daylight--are considered for the awards, though preference given to thermal imagery.


The award winners' accounts are consistently fascinating, often thrilling and at times just plain funny. Year after year, they've left the Rotor & Wing staff thinking, "What great stories." With the help of FLIR Systems, which this year provided us advanced notice of the first-, second- and third-place winners so we could relate their tales, we present those great stories for those unable to attend the July 20 awards dinner in New Orleans. This year's dinner was sponsored by FLIR Systems, Wulfberg Electronics and Avalex Technologies.

"10 Hr., Four Fuel Stops, And All the Good Guys Went Home"

Ken O'Neal and Keith Potter's trip to this year's Vision Award winner's circle began at about 11:15 pm local time on Dec. 30, 2005, when they responded in one of the King County, Wash. Sheriff's Office OH-58s to a report of shots fired at officers in the city of Renton, Wash.

The call was unusual for a couple of reasons. First, "we don't get officer-involved shootings all the time," said Potter, who like O'Neal is a King County deputy. Second, for nearly all of what would turn out to be a 10-hr. operation, the airborne deputies were the only officers who could see the shooting suspect.

"We were the only ones that had eyes on him for the first 9 hr. and 45 min.," said Potter, who was recently promoted to chief pilot of the sheriff's helicopter unit. The unit flies three Hughes OH-58s, a Bell UH-1H for search-and-rescue and special-weapons-and-tactics team (SWAT) operations, and a Bell 206 for training.

This night, Potter was the observer in Guardian One, with O'Neal at the controls. They were flying a routine patrol when the call came in to assist the Renton police. As its officers came upon a scene to investigate complaints of possible prostitution and drug activity, they reported being fired upon. The shooting suspect ran across Highway 167, a busy road in the suburb southeast of Seattle, and into a wooded swamp. A mile-and-a-half stretch of the highway was shut down.

When Guardian One arrived, officers on the ground directed O'Neal to the swamp and Potter began searching with the aircraft's FLIR Ultra 7500 infrared camera. He soon spotted the suspect waist deep in water. Officers took up positions on Highway 167 and a hill above the swamp and asked Guardian One to turn its NightSun on the suspect. As soon as they did so, "we were advised that a shot had been fired from the suspect," Potter said. "We believe he did not like the attention and was shooting at us."

Guardian One watched the suspect move from the swamp onto a berm about 20 yd. wide. There was water to the north and south and police officers to the east and west. Those officers were considering sending in a K-9 unit to subdue the gunman, who Potter was watching on the forward-looking infrared (flir).

"He was very agitated" and took a defensive stance, "waiting for someone to come get him." He passed that on to the ground units, who decided to hold off.

As the helicopter circled, the gunman walked into a clearing in the trees and began shooting in the air. The flir clearly showed two shots being fired, Potter said, "and him pointing at us." The shooter was about 50 yd. from the freeway.

That was about an hour into the call and Guardian One was getting low on fuel, so the crew advised ground commanders and headed for their base at King County International Airport, aka Boeing Field, about 7.5 nm to the northwest. Turnaround time was short, and upon the aircraft's return to the scene, Potter quickly relocated the suspect. "He had not moved much and was now under a large tree."

About 3 hr. into the call, the SWAT members on scene and asked the crew to confirm the suspect's location. Potter put the spotlight on him and used the flir and color cameras to track him. With that information in hand, SWAT was cleared to start shooting tear gas at the suspect. Potter provided guidance on the shots.

"The first and third shots landed almost right at his feet," he said. "Then checking the winds, I adjusted their fire."

On the flir display, he could see the suspect coughing and bending over. There was another report of a shot fired. "The suspect did not appear to be willing to give up," Potter said. "I advised the ground commander. A full SWAT callout was then set in motion."

After another refueling, Guardian One returned to again find the suspect hadn't moved much. The aircrew kept an eye on him as the SWAT team assembled, which took some time. The pilots went for another refueling. When they returned, the SWAT team had assembled and developed a plan.

"We were still the only officers with eyes on the suspect and had to walk the team into the area," Potter said. They got within about 20 yd. of the suspect and tried shooting more gas at him as well as sting-ball grenades. He moved to the north side of the berm and appeared to be laying on his left side in a fetal position. None of the rounds seemed to have any effect on him. He fired two more rounds. The SWAT team held its ground for a couple of more hours and waited. Guardian One left for more fuel. When they returned, again the suspect hadn't moved much. The deputies were now 8 hr. into the call.

The SWAT team hit the suspect with more gas and sting balls, to no avail. Team members then decided to approach the shooter behind a ballistic blanket. They got within 20 yd. of the suspect, with Potter again guiding their approach because he remained the only officer with eyes on the suspect. With his help, they drew within about 12 ft., at which point they could see his legs. They fired bean bags at him; the suspect didn't move. The SWAT team moved in and found the suspect dead from a single, self-inflicted gunshot to the chest. Guardian One cleared the scene and returned to base.

The event lasted almost 10 hr., with four fuel stops. Almost 70 rounds of gas or sting-ball grenades were used. Seventy-eight officers from 10 different agencies were at the scene. Guardian One was the only unit that had the suspect in sight until the SWAT team's final approach.

Without the flir, "this call would have had a totally different ending," Potter said. "All the good guys went home and the bad guy didn't."

The Wrong Time to Light Up

Brevard County, Fla. Deputies Chris Sands and Dave Altman are hardly strangers to the Vision Awards. Three years ago, they won the top prize for helping save a Cocoa Beach man from killing himself--they used the flir on their OH-58 to track him down twice, the second time in the water, under a dock, after he escaped police.

This year Sands and Altman took the second-place prize for the capture of two burglary and armed burglary suspects who'd had run-ins with their counterparts on the ground not once, not twice but four times--including one in which one of the suspects assaulted a deputy. Both men were suspected in a series of burglaries on the mainland of central Brevard County, across the inland Banana and Indian rivers from Cocoa Beach and Cape Canaveral. One had a felony warrant against him for grand theft firearm.

The encounters began about 8 pm on April 11, when a deputy spotted the suspects and attempted to arrest them. They ran into a wooded area. A search by a K-9 team failed to turn them up.

Early the next morning, that same deputy again spotted the suspects, this time in a park. One resisted arrest, assaulting the deputy in the process. The suspects again fled on foot.

That afternoon, another deputy eyed the pair. They raced away into nearby woods. The Brevard County aviation unit was called out for an air search, but it turned up negative. Later that night, around 11:30, the suspects' luck apparently ran out.

A third deputy called for aviation unit support for K-9 search for the suspects. Sands and Altman responded in their OH-58 from the aviation unit's base at Merritt Island Airport about 10 nm to the northeast.

"This was just one of those `Go out and see what you can find' calls," Sands said.

The pair has been flying together for about six years, Sands as pilot, and Altman as the Brevard County Sheriff's sole full-time flir operator. Sands considers his partner "the best flir operator in the world." On this call, his partner would prove that opinion well founded.

The search area was a relatively new subdivision of large, one- and two-story homes built amid golf courses on former farmland. As Sands circled the helicopter around some of those houses, Altman saw something on his FLIR Ultra 7500.

"It was a little flick in between trees," he said. Apparently, one of the suspects had lit a cigarette.

"We came around and, sure enough, there they were in between the houses," Sands remembered. The suspects had crouched down behind an electrical utility box amid the houses. Altman directed the K-9 officer and his dog to the spot and one of the suspects took off. The dog, and the helicopter, pursued, Altman providing updates on the suspect's new hiding spot. The K-9 pair approached and the suspect again ran. This time the dog ran him down. With one in custody, Sands and Altman went back to look for the other one.

"To my amazement," Altman said, "when we went back to the original spot, the second guy was still there."

As Altman directed deputies on the ground back to this guy, he took off, with Altman tracking him on the flir and a K-9 dog on his tail. The suspect ducked into the screened porch of a house before the dog could get him. Altman used the flir to guide officers to the house, where that suspect was nabbed.

Deploy the SWAT Cat

This year's third-place prize went to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Dept., whose Deputies Rick Magdaleno and John Racz helped track down a man with a gun.

The pair were out on a routine patrol at about 2:30 am on Oct. 10, 2005 when they got the call to the Century sheriff's station area in south central Los Angeles.

"It was a thing we go on all the time," Racz, the tactical flight officer on the Eurocopter AS350B2 AStar. "We got overhead and said, "Where was he last seen, which way did he go?"

With Magdaleno flying, they assisted with containment of the area, then started the flir search. Within a few minutes, Racz found a hot spot under a car parked in the backyard near where the suspect was last seen, but he wasn't sure what it was. K-9 units were on their way, but before they got there, a cat--it's come to be known as the SWAT Cat--happened to stroll under the car. It startled the suspect enough to make it clear to Racz that the hot spot was a person.

"We decided to employ the latest in cutting-edge police tactics," Racz said, very much tongue in cheek. "With grim accuracy, the SWAT cat found its mark and confirmed our suspicions."

Shortly thereafter, K-9 deputies arrived, announced their presence and the suspect surrendered. "And thus, another cut-throat villain was taken off the streets of LA.

"A lot of guys get those kinds of flir `kills,'" Racz said, more seriously. "I just happened to be recording that night."

First-place winners of the Vision Awards receive what FLIR Systems describes as "the coveted FLIR Vision Award" leather jackets, a traveling trophy, and a donation to the charity of their choice. Second- and third-place winners also receive prizes that include FLIR Vision Award apparel, personalized plaques, and donations to a favorite charity. Since FLIR began presenting the awards in 1995-96, its donations on behalf of the winners has topped $30,000.

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