Thursday, December 31, 2015

Sheriffs can take to the air if they need to

Among the equipment at the disposal of the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office is a plane.

It may seat only two people, is kept in Greensboro, and is shared by two other county sheriff’s offices, but it’s available for Sheriff Terry Johnson’s staff for surveillance and intelligence gathering, searching for missing people, or tracking wanted suspects.

The Tecnam P92, owned by the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, is shared by Alamance and Randolph county sheriff’s offices. The three agencies split fixed costs, such as the hangar rental at Piedmont Triad International airport and insurance, though the annual cost of the program wasn’t immediately available.

Each agency pays for gas used when a trip is made in the plane. The Guilford County Sheriff’s Office has two pilots, and Randolph County, one, which assist Alamance when it uses the plane, though that’s infrequent.

“We don’t fly a ton (of operations) for Alamance,” said Greg Russell, chief pilot for the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office’s air support unit. “When we do, it’s normally a surveillance flight or photo flight.”

Russell said the local agencies, which previously included the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, initially gained access to another plane in March 2009 through a federal grant to test aircraft being used by law enforcement.

Then, in 2011, they sent that plane to a different department in New York and received the current Tecnam P92.

Once that federal program stopped, Russell said, the government allowed agencies to keep the aircraft.

Randy Jones, public information officer for the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office, said they were “not going to address the most recent usage” of the plane, but said it has been used for “surveillance, searches and drug eradication.”

He wasn’t aware of any missing persons who had been located using the plane. The N.C. Highway Patrol’s helicopter with a FLIR infrared camera has proved more successful for finding individuals, Jones said.

On the other hand, Russell, who has been a pilot more than 25 years, says Guilford County seems to use the aircraft most for surveillance as part of drug or property crimes investigations.

While the plane was already out for an unrelated reason this fall, an armed robbery occurred at a pharmacy in northwest Guilford County, Russell said.

The plane responded form the southeast part of the county to attempt to locate the suspect vehicle. Investigators relayed information that “the suspects had ties to a location in Randolph County,” where, in around 12 minutes, an officer in the plane spotted the suspect vehicle in a driveway, and the suspects were arrested.

Another time, after a home invasion in Stokesdale where the resident returned home and was shot at, someone in the sheriff’s office plane located one of the suspects, who had fled on foot, running across a field.

“It’s paid for itself time and time again,” Russell said of Guilford County’s use of the plane.


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