FLIR camera on Denver Police 'Air One' helicopter helps officers on the ground find hidden suspects

DENVER - They patrol the streets of Denver without setting foot on the ground.

Denver Police Technician Jeff Thomason and Sgt. Evan Hvizdak are often the first officers on scene to any call in the metro area.

On average, the Denver Police helicopter known as "Air One," flies two hours at a time, twice a night and five nights a week.

"We can get from one side of the city to the other in five minutes or less," said Thomason. "Between 60 and 70 percent of the time, we're the first cops on scene."

7NEWS rode in Air One to see how the response differs in the sky.

From the back seats of the Bell 407 helicopter, you can look out the windows or watch a small monitor that shows video from a color camera and a FLIR infrared system. FLIR stands for Forward Looking Infrared.

"That's how we read different heat signatures," said Hvizdak. "Without the computer actually interpreting those energy levels, I couldn't tell you what we'd be looking at."

The FLIR camera shows heat. When police are looking for a suspect hiding somewhere, the FLIR camera can reveal their position because their body may glow white in comparison to the cooler surroundings.

"Sometimes we won't use the equipment," said Hvizdak. "If you have no idea what you're kind of looking for or where it is, your peripheral vision's a lot better than using equipment sometimes."

During our ride along, Air One started over Stapleton looking for a suspect in a strong arm robbery.

While circling the area over 29th Avenue and Quebec Street, the FLIR camera showed the glowing bodies of pedestrians and kids playing basketball.

"Until they invent a FLIR that tells us which ones are the good guys and which ones (are) the bad guys… everybody looks the same" said Thomason. "You'll see (Hvizdak) focus in on hot spots and we'll say, 'Oh, that's a utility box, a transformer or a light.'"

After searching for more than five minutes, another call was dispatched over police radio about occupants of one car reportedly shooting at another vehicle.

"Possible shots fired, a silver blue Blazer chasing a white SUV. (Reporting Party) said they could hear gunshots from the Blazer. They heard two shots," said a dispatcher over police radio traffic.

"Yeah, let's go there," said Thomason. "We're self-dispatched, so we're constantly re-evaluating our calls. If something more important comes in, we'll head there. We're constantly changing."

While on the lookout for the vehicles involved in the possible shooting, Arapahoe County asked for assistance finding a man who ran from a vehicle where shots also may have been fired.

"Denver to Arapahoe County," said a dispatcher. "We have Air One in the area. We need a direction of travel on the parties that ran."

"We're the only statewide law enforcement helicopter," said Hvizdak. "Certainly Denver gets priority, but if you have a high threat level or a higher risk call, we'll go there and help for sure."

Air One circled an area around Quebec Street and Evans Avenue searching for two men believed to be on the run.

From 1,000 feet in the sky, Hvizdak will not make an executive decision, but will rather pass along observations and relay the information he sees to officers and deputies on the ground.

"In the 2000 block (of) South Pontiac (Street), where it curves around westbound, in my opinion that would be a good place to put a car," said Hvizdak.  "Northeast corner, there's an open door. People are just freely going in and out. The car that's going to that corner should be able to see that doorway (and) make a determination if that's involved in this."

While shining the spotlight that can make an entire block appear to be bathed in daylight, a suspect ran right into Arapahoe County deputies.

"OK, they got him at gunpoint," said Thomason. "I guarantee you our light forced him that way. A lot of times, if we hit them with the light directly, like 50 percent of the time they'll run if they think we see them."

For another 15 minutes, Air One circled a greenbelt and storage area watching the FLIR monitor to see a heat signature of a second person hiding. From the air, the two talked a deputy on the ground through the visuals they were seeing up above.

"That's where that heat signature is; could be a rock, could be water, could be somebody hunkered down under a tree, that's why we're concerned about it," Hvizdak told the deputy. "Keep going southbound, I'll let you know when to stop."

"For other cars in the area, there's a greenbelt down there with a bunch of trees. We cannot see below the canopy of the trees," said Thomason.

Once the deputy walked closer to the glowing object, it became apparent it was not someone hiding.

"There's actually a couple of different heat signatures the same temperature there. Comparing it now to the officer, it's a great deal cooler. It might be worth a walk-through, but now in comparison, it's most likely not an individual," said Hvizdak to the deputy.

Once we landed, Arapahoe County reported that there was only one suspect.

According to the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office, Chan Leigh was arrested for motor vehicle theft and an outstanding warrant. The search was the result of a disturbance between the occupants of two vehicles near the Comcast building in the 8000 block of East Iliff Avenue. Leigh reported that he was driving on Cherry Creek South and was the victim of road rage when another driver shot at him. Arapahoe County investigators have not been able to find any witnesses to back up that story.

Air One costs $300 to $400 each time it is in the air. In the 2014 budget, the Mayor approved an increase in $150,000 for fuel and $12,000 for the rental of an airport hangar.

"I think it's invaluable, whatever the cost is. It's not unreasonable. I think it's justifiable. I think it's worth having," said Denver Police Special Operations Commander Patrick Phelan. "Most of the financing for the helicopter comes from a grant; it's not a cost to the city. It's reasonably inexpensive to run a helicopter for the Denver Police Department."

In late 2009, the Colorado Springs Police Department sold its helicopters, due to costs.

Thomason is adamant that the benefit of the helicopter is response times.

The next step for Air One is to get technology that allows officers on the ground a way to see the live video from the FLIR camera in the sky, so they can make their own decisions with the visuals in front of them.

Earlier this year, 7NEWS asked Denver Police for response time statistics. 911 calls are dispatched based on a priority scale of P0 to P6, with P0 being the most serious.

In 2013, the average response time to a P0, deemed a "critical response," such as an active shooting, was about six minutes, 45 seconds. The average response time for a P1 "emergency" call was 12 minutes. The average response time for a P2 "urgent" call was more than 16 minutes.

"Unless it's a felony crime of violence, you can't chase on the ground. Having us in the air is a big help," said Thomason. "My number one priority is 'Cops go home at the end of the night.' If I can help those cops go home at the end of the night, where they don't have to face an armed suspect without knowing where he's at, I will do everything in my power to help out."

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