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Advanced Imaging Magazine

Updated: January 12th, 2011 10:01 AM CDT

The Many Roles of Thermal Imaging in Law Enforcement

Thermal cameras are affordable, effective, and available for every cop on every beat
Thermal security camera image
© Flir
Thermal security cameras installed in fixed positions allow 24-hour coverage of problem areas as defined by law enforcement working together with community leaders.
police officer using hand-held thermal camera
Flir
Police officers on patrol can have individual hand-held thermal cameras; a capability once thought to be an unrealistic extravagance.
Night vision image
© Flir
Night vision becomes vitally important when officers are responsible for monitoring conditions that could lead to criminal activity, countering illegal activity before it can get out of control, or gathering evidence.
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By David Lee

Thermal imaging cameras are a mainstay of airborne law enforcement, and many of us have seen them in action. Video footage from airborne thermal imagers on police helicopters routinely makes the nightly news, and cable TV shows highlight the exploits of state and local law enforcement agencies across the U.S. and around the world.

These programs show airborne officers using forward-looking infrared to coordinate the movement of ground units during car chases, apprehend fugitives fleeing through neighborhoods, find illegal drug operations inside homes and warehouses, and a host of other missions.

But airborne operations are only a small part of the policing pie, even if an important one. In the U.S., there are nearly 5,000 state and local law enforcement agencies. Of these, only 5 percent (roughly) have an airborne surveillance capability, leaving the rest to go without the thermal imaging advantage.

Now law enforcement agencies don't have to operate and maintain an expensive aircraft to reap the benefits of thermal imaging. Recent advances in the production of high-quality, uncooled infrared detectors have enabled the development of a wide range of affordable cameras from FLIR and other manufacturers for law-enforcement applications. Agencies of every size and composition now can enjoy the benefits of thermal imaging: from mounting cameras on poles in high-sensitivity areas, to putting them on patrol cars and police boats. Officers on patrol can even have individual hand-held thermal cameras; a capability once thought to be an unrealistic extravagance.

Community policing is a law enforcement philosophy that promotes community interaction and support to help control crime, identify suspects, detain vandals, and bring potential problems and problem areas to the attention of police.

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