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9 patrol applications for night vision and thermal imaging technology

There are many ways patrol officers can use this technology in the field


Searching a wooded area or an open meadow at night leaves open the possibility of walking within a few feet of whoever you’re looking for, and still missing them.

Photo/Boynton Beach Police Department

Night vision technology – which turns invisible infrared (IR) radiation into something you can see – has been available since the 1960s. Up until recently, night vision gear was very heavy, needed to be super-cooled and cost thousands of dollars. Now there are handheld devices that sell for a few hundred dollars, and even a night vision attachment for your smartphone.

Even a purchase that costs less than a new sidearm has to be justified. Here are nine ways patrol officers can use night vision and thermal imaging devices in the field:

1. Finding eluding vehicles on pursuits

Just about everyone who has been in a vehicle pursuit has lost sight of the car and had it disappear into the night. A dark, parked car in a lot full of them, or alone in the middle of an open field, can be difficult to spot. Seen through an IR scope, the hot car stands out as if lit by a spotlight.

2. Building searches

There are many arguments about how lighting should be used when searching a dark building. Turning on the interior lights or using a flashlight shows the intruder where you are, even if you aren’t sure if there is anyone in there. With night vision, you can maintain cover of darkness, and still spot the bad guy in the dark.

3. Wide area searches

Searching a wooded area or an open meadow at night leaves open the possibility of walking within a few feet of whoever you’re looking for, and still missing them. Survey the same area with infrared, and your objective is easy to spot.

4. Finding lost children and seniors

Both children and seniors with diminished capacity wander away from home, and sometimes it’s a race against the elements to find them before they die of exposure. IR is great for finding them in an open area, but equally useful for looking under stairways, in alcoves and in other urban features where they might be concealed.

5. Locating abandoned property

Non-living items that have been lost or ditched by a fleeing suspect will eventually assume the same temperature as their surroundings, but they may heat or cool at a different rate, making them stand out from the thermal background. This technique is most effective shortly after the item has been dropped, or just after sundown or sunrise, when the background temperature is changing.

6. Identifying homeless camps

When someone is sleeping inside a vehicle in a parking lot, the vehicle will be considerably warmer than the ones around it. Campsites that are hidden from view, especially at night, may be evident from their thermal signature.

7. Tagging K9s and tactical teams

Infrared strobes and beacons appear inert to the casual observer, but blink brightly in the eyepiece of an IR scope. Tagging your tactical officers and K9s with these allows you to track them from a distance, while keeping them concealed from the bad guys.

8. Monitoring the perimeter of tactical operations

One of the more tedious assignments a patrol officer can have is to stake out the perimeter of a wide-area search. It’s unlikely anything is going to happen, and there’s good chance the suspect can get by you anyway, depending on how much territory you’re assigned to watch. Surveil the same vista with a night vision scope, and no one is going to get out of there without you knowing about it.

9. Looking for burglars

Burglars and other prowlers often like to lay low in a neighborhood, watching for targets of opportunity, or hiding after they have been discovered, waiting for the police to leave. Experienced prowlers know the good places to hide. If you have a night vision device, there are considerably fewer good places.

If you can’t afford to purchase a night vision scope or thermal imaging device on your own, some of the commercial vendors have loaner programs so agencies can see the worth of the devices in the field. This is very cool technology that is more affordable than ever before. Maybe you can come up with a few more ways to use it.

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia and Oregon. He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.