AUSTIN (KXAN) — Though you may not see them at the scene of a crime, the Austin Police Department has extra sets of eyes in the skies. Its Air Support team operates aircraft equipped with cameras that give insight that officers on the ground aren’t always able to.
KXAN Photojournalist Tim Holcomb went up with the Air Support team on one of its helicopters to take a look at what they’re focused on.
On Saturday, the Air Support team was called out to help out the Travis County Sheriff’s Office in locating a suspect from a burglary who had fled the scene.
After preparing the aircraft for takeoff, tactical flight officer Steve Lindsay and senior police officer and pilot Kurt Wernicki hopped into the helicopter. They next began talking over the radio with deputies on the ground.
TCSO sent them descriptions of the burglary suspect over the radio as they searched for him from above, peering onto the screens in the cockpit which show the view from their thermal imaging cameras. Their aircraft have moving map systems, police radios and thermal and color cameras.
“We’ve been on quite a few missions where we’ve actually saved lives and a couple of gentlemen that were older got lost in the woods,” Wernicke explained.
Both Wernicke and Lindsay worked in law enforcement on the ground previously and use that experience as they provide support from the air. Typically, air support teams will fly with one pilot and one tactical flight officer in the aircraft at a time.
Most commonly, air support will use their cameras to aid in car chases, finding missing people or locating suspects running from law enforcement. Sometimes they use their aircraft to transport K-9s and SWAT team resources, or even to check on suspicious buildings.
Officer Lindsay was called out the night that law enforcement closed in on the Austin bomber. Lindsay was asked to monitor the suspect’s car from miles away.
“We were able to follow him down I-35, call out his position up until the point he was contacted by our SWAT team,” Lindsay said. He explained that the information they gathered when the Austin bomber was caught was later able to be used as evidence.
“We’re able to provide a calm perspective as to what was going on on the ground, and that hopefully made some type of difference for the investigation and the outcome,” Lindsay added.
The air support cameras are powerful enough that they can monitor without flying directly overhead, that way they avoid drawing attention to the situation on the ground.
But even if there isn’t a high-stakes call in the works, Lindsay believes having resources in the air is important for getting quick assistance when crews on the ground can’t easily do it.
“It’s something new every day so you never really get bored, so I’m going to stick with it as long as they let me,” Wernicke said.
Though these officers work for the Austin Police Department, they are often sent out to help other departments as far away from Austin as Blanco and New Braunfels.
“Because a lot of agencies don’t have this particular asset, and we realize the value, and the department realizes the value,” Lindsay explained.