The San Diego Police Department's Airborne Law Enforcement Unit (ABLE) is being nationally recognized by FLIR, the company that makes the 380 HD cameras mounted on SDPD helicopters.
The police helicopter unit, better known as ABLE, won third place in FLIR's 2015 Vision Award for most effective use of its cameras – specifically for the way ABLE used the technology to help capture two burglary suspects in Southeast San Diego.
It was about midnight on a night in February 2015 when a homeowner called 911 because he heard someone downstairs trying to break into his house.
ABLE pilots Blair Stephens and Matthew Zdunich were few miles out, and even at that distance were able to identify the house on their FLIR 380 HD camera.
"As we arrived at the house, it's important for us to know what the person calling the police has to say, so that's being given to us over the radio," says SDPD Officer Stephens, a 15-year veteran of the ABLE unit. “Matt is looking at the house with the camera. And as the pilot, it's my job to position the helicopter so he can see whatever he needs to see the entire time."
The FLIR cameras work with a GPS moving map system and display very sharp infrared images on the monitors inside ABLE's Airbus A-Star helicopters.
The map also displays the actual plot of the property.
"If the camera is looking at a particular address, on the moving map, you see what that address is. So if somebody is jumping fences from one yard into the next, wherever the x is on the screen, I can look on the map, and it will tell me where the address is," says SDPD Officer Zdunich, who joined the unit nearly four years ago.
That night in February 2015, SDPD Officers Stephens and Zdunich were over the house on Black Oak Road in about a minute.
They immediately saw two burglars in the backyard, before they were able to break in to a home.
The pilots tracked the burglars as they jumped fences and tried to escape the scrutiny of the pilots, who are all tactical flight officers, on board the SDPD helicopter.
"With the handheld controller in the cockpit, I can move the camera around and follow his actions," says Officer Zdunich.
One of the suspects tried to hide in the bushes, apparently thinking he couldn't be seen.
"People that are in a dark place that's not well lit, think that they're hidden," says Zdunich. "And they are, from people on the ground who can't see that. But this camera is helping us to see that."
"He stayed put there, until he was eventually arrested," says Zdunich.
The second suspect kept running through neighboring yards, changing directions when he came across an approaching officer or neighborhood dogs.
"The other one continued on the move until eventually we had coordinated a tight enough perimeter where he could be contacted by a patrol officer and a K-9 officer," says Officer Zdunich.
One of ABLE's main objectives is officer safety.
"One of the suspects was trying to come out of the side yard onto the street and there was an officer heading in the same direction. They were about to meet at the fence line," says Officer Zdunich. "So I was able to give that information to the officer so he wasn't surprised if the suspect, in fact, jumped over the fence."
The new HD camera also has a longer lens, improved stabilization and increased zoom capacity.
The images on the older cameras weren't nearly as clear, so pilots had to fly lower, usually about 800 feet, to see the images on their monitors.
"That disturbs the residents. And as the officers are trying to do their job, the helicopter noise hampers their ability not only to communicate on the radio, but also to communicate with each other," said Officer Stephens.
ABLE pilots can now fly anywhere from about 1,000 feet to 2,000 feet in the air. The FLIR cameras ABLE uses are compact versions of the ones the military uses on its aircraft.
The pilots give a lot of credit to the patrol officers on the ground, who must be able to react quickly.
"It does take an entire team of air support unit, ground officers that work with the information we give them. We're a resource to them," says Officer Stephens, and notes, dispatchers are also crucial to the team.
ABLE pilots say the cameras help to clear a lot of cases.
The two burglary suspects seen in the February 2015 ABLE video settled their case out of court.
"It was an excellent show of police work," says Officer Zdunich.
The unit has been recording all of its incidents, since the late 1980's.
"It works in the same aspect a body camera would. It records everything, both for evidence and to prove or disprove something that someone says may or may not have happened," says ABLE Sergeant Craig Evans.
ABLE’s four helicopters are now equipped with two FLIR 380 HD. A third camera will arrive in early 2016. All three were paid for with federal and state grants.