Thermal Imaging & Law Enforcement Applications

Thermal imaging can increase an officer’s vision and effectiveness, whether pursuing a fugitive, a lost boater, buried body, or evidence at an accident scene. It can even tip officers off to a crime before it happens. In short, they will see things they never would have seen before. A perpetrator, missing person, or abandoned vehicle can be spotted by officers before they are exposed to any danger!

Thermal imaging also makes life easier in many of the less stressful but equally demanding areas of police work. Accident scene skid marks reveal many additional clues under infrared study. Hidden compartments in vehicles, stashes in walls, disturbed spots in the dirt — thermal imaging spots them even when the naked eye cannot.

Time and time again, searchers equipped with thermal imagers have spotted a lost or missing person and saved a life that might otherwise have been lost. Police officers have spotted and apprehended hidden individuals countless times, usually managing to avoid the danger and risk inherent in any search or pursuit. It’s not always obvious is all of the other ways in which a thermal imager can contribute to public safety and become an indispensable tool.

Disturbed Surfaces
Thermal imaging can be a policeman’s best friend when it comes to sniffing out hidden contraband. Disturbed or altered surfaces that may appear unchanged to the naked eye will look disturbed in infrared. Officers can use thermal imagers to survey walls and floors for hidden compartments that may contain drugs, money, or other contraband. Even meticulously-repaired seams in sheet-rock walls, invisible to the naked eye, stand out when viewed with a thermal imager. Turned earth radiates heat differently than compacted soil, allowing officers to more efficiently and quickly find buried items such as money, weapons, or bodies.

Concerns about the degradation of our environment have led the EPA and various state and local agencies to investigate and prosecute environmental polluters.

Pollutants such as oils, chemicals, and waste matter radiate heat differently than the soil or water around them. Thermal imagers allow investigators to spot and then track such pollutants back to their sources.

Flight Safety
Nighttime flight operations are greatly improved by aircraft-mounted thermal imaging technology. Hazards such as power lines can be readily seen and identified with a thermal imager. While traditional aircraft-mounted systems can be prohibitively expensive, more affordable handheld units can be used when a window is opened or a door is removed.

Fugitive Search
“Hot on the trail” is literally the case when officers are armed with thermal imaging technology. Whether at night or day, even at dusk, thermal imagers can “see” fugitives. It makes no difference whether they’re hiding in foliage or dark areas, the fugitives still radiate heat that’s different from their surroundings and gives them away. Just as important, officers can spot and apprehend a subject without giving away their own location. With thermal imaging there are fewer surprises, and less need for risky blind sweeps. Helicopter surveillance is certainly effective, but without thermal imaging on board it looses much of its value at night.

Hidden Compartments
Illegal drugs, contraband, and even people are often transported inside hidden compartments in large vehicles. Thermal imagers can detect these hidden compartments even though they may be invisible to the naked eye.

Marine Surveillance
On the water, thermal imagers prove their worth time and time again. They aid nighttime navigation, help locate and track vessels, and are invaluable for undercover and stakeout operations. Their ability to see through smoke, dust, and haze improves safety on the water. As always, thermal imaging allows investigators to conduct surveillance totally undetected.

Officer Safety
During ground operations, particularly at night, police using thermal imagers are less exposed to danger. Covert surveillance, area- and building-sweeps, even fugitive searches are all made safer because officers can see better with infrared vision. A lights-off approach in a patrol car, always a risky task, is made much safer with infrared vision.

Perimeter Surveillance
One of the first actions taken by an agency in any manhunt or crisis situation is setting up a perimeter. Thermal imaging technology, in either handheld or vehicle-mounted form, can make this perimeter far more effective. Suspects are contained and can be more rapidly and safely apprehended. Unauthorized or unwanted intruders can be detected and denied entry. Restricted facilities, such as correctional institutions or industrial plants, can monitor their perimeters, night or day, through all weather conditions.

Routine Patrol
Thermal imaging is a proven tool for routine patrol operations, and is in use today by hundreds of municipal law enforcement agencies across the U.S. and abroad. Officers on patrol can quickly scan between homes and buildings, see suspects hiding in dark garages and under vehicles, and identify vehicles that were recently driven. When used in total darkness, officers can go undetected, as they search for prowlers, peeping toms, and other criminal mischief.

Search and Rescue
Armed with thermal imaging technology, search and rescue teams can efficiently scour large areas of land or water, regardless of weather or environmental conditions. Through darkest night, snow, or rain — you name it — thermal imaging brings powerful and unmatched capabilities to the hunt. Less manpower is required to conduct the search, and the equipment can be operated equally effectively from automobiles, watercraft, aircraft, and, of course, on foot.

Structure Profiles
Growing marijuana indoors requires an unusual amount of heat, which is made readily visible with thermal imaging technology. One of the earliest law enforcement applications of thermal imaging involved structure profiles during marijuana investigations. The thermal imager can also see the underlying structure of a house or building, which can prove vital to the safety of officers during a raid or a rescue.

Traffic Investigation
Thermal imaging technology is a great aid to accident investigations, because officers can locate, and measure skid marks beyond what is visible on the pavement. A thermal imager can see the heat signature left by a layer of rubber that’s too thin to be seen with the naked eye. Skid marks are still detectable long after the accident. The actual speed of the vehicle can be more accurately determined with thermal imaging. ABS brakes may reduce the traditional skid mark to almost nothing, but they do leave a thermal signature that the investigator can see to reconstruct the accident.

Vehicle Pursuits
High-speed police chases are dangerous and expensive. They often destroy significant amounts of valuable property, as well as harm bystanders or the pursuing officers. As a result, many departments are now prohibiting high-speed pursuits. Naturally, suspects take advantage by fleeing at high speed and then “ditching” their vehicles in crowded parking lots. Using a thermal imager, a police helicopter or patrol car can easily track a suspect’s vehicle, even when he turns off his headlights. Thermal imagers detect the heat of the recently driven vehicle.

Law Enforcement: Apprehending the Bandanna Bandit

It was in 1998 that Chesterfield County began to experience numerous prowler complaints. Several homes had been broken into and a man, often wearing a blue bandanna over his face, had been seen fleeing several of the homes. The man had also sexually assaulted a five-year-old girl after she awoke to find him in her bed. The suspect came to be known as the “Bandanna Bandit”.

The crimes were occurring in the territory worked by Officer R.E. Parham III, who was intent on capturing this suspect. He worked with his sergeant to obtain permission to use the department’s Jeep Cherokee to assist with night surveillance in an area the suspect had frequented previously. The Jeep Cherokee (housed at the Chester Station Precinct for use by night-shift officers) was equipped with a thermal imaging camera mounted to the roof.

Several nights passed without any success. However, at 3:35 a.m. on September 9, Officer Parham observed a suspicious person while using the thermal imaging camera. The suspect’s behavior convinced Officer Parham he was the criminal.

At one point the suspect even walked within 15 feet of the officer, but failed to notice him or the thermal imager-equipped Jeep. Officer Parham called for other units to assist and help establish a containment zone.

Meanwhile, other officers began watching the suspect and observed him peeking into the window of a home. The suspect ran away when the homeowner turned on the lights and ventured outside.

For a short while the suspect evaded officers, but Officer Parham, using the thermal imager, was able to locate the suspect once more and direct personnel toward him. K-9 officers and others joined in the search and the suspect was soon apprehended.

The suspect was identified as a wanted criminal who had been avoiding arrest for many months. One nearby jurisdiction suspected him in 72 suspicious situations that occurred over a 10-year period and included prowling and breaking and entering (B&E). DNA evidence matched the suspect to one of the B&Es and he was charged by the Henrico County Police for that crime.

DNA evidence left by the suspect at the scene of the assault of the young girl helped result in a conviction against him for that crime. The suspect pled guilty to several heinous felonies and was sentenced to life in prison plus twenty years.