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Purchasing considerations: Thermal imagers

You’re in the middle of a foot pursuit in the dark, running through waist-high brush when you hear that unmistakable, unique transmission on your radio that only your air support can make. “K-9, he’s 30 yards northwest of you in the tree line, deploy your dog now.”

Your canine officer releases his dog and in a few seconds you hear several loud screams from the suspect. Seconds later, you and your fellow officers are on top of him taking him into custody.

This scenario might not have been a success without the use of thermal imagers by your air support. Thermal imagers have been a modern day advancement that has almost become a necessity in the law enforcement community.

With civil liability issues increasing everyday for police when dealing with vehicle or foot pursuits, thermal imagers aid in the reduction of time these pursuits take and help to capture the suspects while maintaining the safety of officers and citizens alike.

Thermal imagers will have legal limitations, such as a required search warrant to use them took look for heat sources in private places such as residences and businesses.

1. Determine your mission goals:
Thermal imagers have multiple uses. They are a great tool in finding suspects on the run at night and during the day, but they can also be used to locate heat sources, after a warrant has been secured, in a suspected marijuana grow operation for example.

I once was involved in a high-speed chase at night on the interstate, where the suspects were threw out over 60 1-pound bags of marijuana while trying to escape over a three mile stretch of road during the winter when the temperature outside was about 25 degrees Fahrenheit.. Since they had the heater on in the vehicle, the bags of marijuana were at room temperature. The use of a thermal imager allowed the officers to spot the 72-degree bags spread out along the grassy median quite easily.

You can check out a handful of manufacturers of thermal imaging devices here and you can also read up on the latest current events, such as court decisions and recent success stories in the use of thermal imaging in law enforcement here .

Will the primary task of your thermal imager be in suspect pursuit, drug interdiction, surveillance, or something else, or all of the above? If possible, have the retailers and manufacturers come to your agency and deliver an on-site demonstration, where you can ask questions and make a determination as to what type of unit will best fit your department’s needs and budget.

2. Define your budget:
Thermal imagers now come in a variety of sizes and uses. Handheld FLIR units, patrol car roof-mounted units, mounted units for helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, as well as some others are available from several reliable manufacturers in different budget ranges. Thermal imaging video and still cameras are gaining in popularity as well.

You have the opportunity to seek grant assistance in the purchase of this type of technology, so devote some energy to researching those options. Police1 is an excellent resource, as are some of the manufacturers themselves.

In California:

Other grants to apply for:

Local businesses and citizens are often eager to help to donate to this type of equipment. You law enforcement association should be actively seeking out these types of individuals and businesses.

3. Questions to ask:
Once you determine the best type of thermal imaging device, I strongly recommend you compare manufacturers by asking several questions of each of them:
• What are the range capacities of the unit?
• What are the limitations?
• What type of material is the device made of?
• Which will withstand the type of use and environment you will use it in?
• Which will have the best warranty, price and after purchase support?
• Which unit will have the quickest and most convenient repair process?

In today’s ever changing technologically-advanced world, tools such as a thermal imager are a necessity to fight crime. With the use of them and other equipment such as night vision, spike strips, and patrol dogs, fleeing suspect are at a bigger disadvantage than ever. If they think they can outrun us by vehicle, at night, or on foot, then best of luck to them. They will have to be faster than our radios, be invisible to our thermal imagers, avoid detection by our night vision equipment, dodge our spike strips and outrun that Dutch shepherd that’s about to implant their teeth into their backside.

Any other suggestions? Anything we missed in the list above? Leave a comment below or email with your feedback.

Sgt. Andrew G. Hawkes contributed to this report.

The Police1 Buying Guide column features how-to-buy guides for top police products and articles from our columnists as well as industry analysts, educators, and other noted specialists in their fields. Send product suggestions and feedback to