When suspected burglars John Sommer, 56, and Ronald Alston, 46, were caught hiding behind huge spools of wire outside a recycling plant this week, they probably didn't realize it was because they were glowing.
Their body heat was picked up by a new imaging device attached to a Baltimore County Police Department helicopter that was hovering above them, displaying their images on a screen in the helicopter as a white glow in an otherwise pitch-dark field.
"That was a textbook case of how it works," Capt. Don Roby of the department's Special Services Section said of the device, which consists of a camera in a globe attached to the bottom of the helicopter. "We searched first for these guys with the spotlight, and because they were hiding in the shadows, we couldn't see them."
Baltimore County, which also will test another, similar system, is the fourth agency in the state to use this type of imaging. The 11 state police helicopters have had similar devices since 1989, Baltimore's four helicopters have been equipped with slightly less powerful ones since 1994, and the Maryland Natural Resources Police use them on their aircraft.
Wednesday, the Baltimore County Aviation Unit began testing a device made by Inframetrics Inc. of North Billerica, Mass., on one of the unit's three Bell OH58 helicopters. That test will conclude tomorrow. Next month, police will test a similar device made by Flir Inc. of Portland, Ore.
XTC Roby said he hopes his unit will have one of the devices -- which cost $125,000 apiece -- in about six weeks.
First Sgt. Mark Gabriele of the state police Aviation Unit said state police have recorded a 100 percent increase in arrests since they started using the devices.
"But when we first started looking into getting this, we wanted it more to find lost people, and not necessarily criminals," he said. "We thought it would help in finding the child who wandered out into the snow or an Alzheimer's patient who walked away from a nursing home."
Gabriele pointed to the example of a suicidal man who was found by the device after he wandered into the woods in Leonardtown Feb. 21 and shot at police with a rifle.
"After we got the man out, we needed to find the gun, so we used the infrared camera to go back to the spot where he had been sitting in the woods," Gabriele said. "The ground, from his ++ body heat, was still hot, so we located the spot right away, and the gun was nearby."
Baltimore County officials hope the imaging device will save the department money by reducing the time needed to find suspects or missing people, Roby said. It costs the county about an hour to fly the helicopter.
The two burglary suspects caught Wednesday night were spotted by the device as they hid behind the spools on the grounds of Integrity Metal and Recycling on Philadelphia Road. The device transmitted the location to a television screen inside the helicopter.
The officer inside the helicopter radioed a K-9 officer on the ground, who made the arrests, Roby said. Both men were charged with burglary and theft.
Pub Date: 3/22/97