Airborne police struggle with laser threat

Unfortunately, the threat to aircraft from persons armed with lasers appears to be growing. In addition to commercial and business aircraft being “lasered” numerous law enforcement aircraft have reported that they have also been the subject of a laser attack.

The threat from lasers ranges from general distraction to permanent eye damage. Most laser incidents are perpetrated by people that bought their laser at the local office supply store. However, as those lasers get more sophisticated, so does the danger, especially those posed by so-called “green-dot lasers.” They are brighter and more powerful than the standard red-dot laser and are becoming more popular. Military grade lasers, although not common, pose the greatest threat and could cause permanent damage.

Preparing for the Laser Case
A small problem that has come up for both prosecutors and investigators is that there is rarely a law specifically addressing pointing a laser at an aircraft. If a person is arrested for such an offense they are generally charged under the umbrella of another statue. For example, in New York State, the person is likely charged with Reckless Endangerment because of the threat to cause injury. Another issue is educating prosecutors as to the seriousness of the problem. It is not merely “shining a light” into the cockpit. Many people — including prosecutors — are unaware of the tremendous danger posed by lasers.

Once the threat and seriousness of the laser issue is understood, many prosecutors take a much more serious position. There have been successful prosecutions in California, Ohio, Florida, and New York. In these cases, the incidents were either teens looking for a thrill or a misguided adult trying out their new “toy.”

Responding to the Laser Call
The call usually comes in from the local air traffic control tower; an aircraft while landing or taking off was “hit by a laser.” That is to say that someone on the ground intentionally pointed a laser inside the aircraft from the ground. Thankfully, most incidents remain merely “alarming” and do no permanent or lasting harm. Unfortunately, these incidents, should they blind the pilot, could lead to a disaster.

When a laser incident is reported to police aviation units, their primary response is to fly to the general area in which they believe the laser came from and then attempt to “draw out” the actor by watching for additional incidents or having the laser pointed at their own aircraft. Hopefully, ground units are strategically placed in the general vicinity and dispatched to the scene when a precise location can be determined.

Laser incidents in England are increasing at an alarming rate and they are rapidly developing technology to combat the threat. The latest push is to have a camera that takes a picture of the laser, and an onboard computer interpolates the location where the laser is coming from. This provides physical evidence as well as a certain location to conduct an investigation. The best part is that this equipment does it “passively” and requires no action by the flight crew.

The FBI and DHS have issued memos to law enforcement agencies stating that evidence indicates terrorists have considered using lasers as weapons. But federal officials have found no evidence any incidents to date are part of a terrorist plot.

Norman Mineta said in 2005 (Maneta at the time was Secretary of Transportation), that there is “no specific or credible intelligence that would indicate that these laser incidents are connected to terrorists. As far as we know, lasers are not the terrorists’ weapon of choice. Nor is there any evidence that these incidents are terrorists practicing for use of other weapons, as some have speculated.”

In any case, agencies should at least consider the possibility of a more sinister motivation when investigating these incidents and always make notifications to other agencies when necessary.

The Extent of the Problem?
The true extent of these incidents is unknown as reporting is fragmented and spotty at best. There is no central database tracking these incidents, at least on a federal level, and therefore the true extent is unknown. If an agency investigates and closes the case at the local level, no one will ever know it occurred except for that agency. Anecdotally at least, the threat does appear to be growing.

The Future
As it appears to be a growing problem, the time to prepare for such incidents is now. Meet with local, state and federal homeland security officials. Take time to brief prosecutors in your area on the nature of the threat. Meet with elected officials and help them to draft appropriate laws so that when it happens in your jurisdiction, you are prepared to deal with it.

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