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Police eye in sky pays dividends

Plane with infrared system turns up concealed criminals

Forgive Nicholas Eric Rice if he keeps looking to the sky.

The 20-year-old Corbett man found himself in jail after he allegedly pulled out a handgun during an early afternoon fight three days before Christmas.

Stupid airplane. Who knew the cops even had one?

Wait, they have two?

The Portland Police Bureau has used airplanes to nab suspects since 1982, buying their first plane in 1999. But recently the effort has, um, taken off. The police bureau added a $200,000 piece of infrared imaging equipment in late spring and took delivery of a second plane in August.

Such timing worked out poorly for Rice, a man with a felony conviction already on his record who had been released from the Multnomah County Jail three days earlier accompanied by charges of identity theft, possession of a controlled substance and unlawful possession of a firearm.

Rice ran when East Precinct police arrived at Southeast 111th Avenue and Division Street, seeking refuge amid stands of trees and darting between houses, police said.

He tossed his .40-caliber gun, cocked and loaded, into some bushes, police said. As Portland cops set up a perimeter 12 blocks in every direction and prepared to spend at least half a day scouring the area for Rice, officers made two additional calls: one to the Special Emergency Reaction Team and the other to the Air Support Unit.

Within 10 minutes of arriving over the scene, Air Support cops in a Cessna 172 found Rice by using the new infrared camera mounted on the plane's left side.

'We've got a heat signature behind a fence off of Woodward, we think,' cops in the plane radioed to SERT officers on the ground.

A second camera, without infrared imaging, showed only trees.

A short time later: 'He's moving, he's moving. É Just so you know, it could be a homeowner. No, no, it's the suspect, we believe. He's walking slowly eastbound right now.'

The plane circled overhead at about 1,500 feet going, at its slowest, about 65 miles an hour. With the heat imaging, cops on board could see Rice, according to a video of Rice's capture released by the police bureau. Cops on the ground were within spitting distance but hadn't found him.

Taking direction from the airborne officers, SERT cops spotted Rice and arrested him. He was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, unauthorized possession of a firearm and unauthorized use of a vehicle, for a car he allegedly stole.

Attempts to reach Rice for comment were unsuccessful.

'When we're there on those pursuits, those pursuits get a lot safer,' said Sgt. Ron Alexander, who took control of the air unit as chief pilot Saturday. 'We can hang back, get some more distance between us and the suspects, which gives the suspect a sense of security and causes them to slow down, to relax and think they got away. That's a lot safer for the public.'

From takeoff to tag

From the time the 18-member air unit gets a call, it takes at minimum of one hour to get the plane airborne over the right place. The record is three vehicle pursuits in one hour, with all suspects arrested even though they ditched their cars and ran. The officers spend a combined 1,000 hours in the air every year, but no one keeps track of the number of arrests that are plane-related.

Alexander's unit has no budget aside from the $40,000 Portland pays to maintain and fuel the plane. The $200,000 for the Forward-Looking Infra-Red, or FLIR, system came from a U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant. So did the $267,000 for the second plane, a Cessna 182, which is not yet in service. All eight pilots received their certification Ñ at minimum a commercial/instrument rating Ñ elsewhere with no money from the city or the police bureau; it can cost up to $15,000.

And they all have other jobs. Alexander works in the Personnel Division. Sgt. Steve Larsen, who was the air unit's chief pilot from 1982 until his retirement Saturday, worked many assignments, his last at East Precinct.

'Everything we've got here is surplus,' Larsen said one recent morning, standing in the police bureau's hangar at the Troutdale Airport. 'It's things people are throwing away. Even the refrigerator over there, that's surplus. Someone gave us that.'

Joe Stidham, the Tactical Operations Division lieutenant who has overseen the air unit since July, said he would like his officers to have more tools.

'A second FLIR for the other plane, that would be good,' he said. 'And a microwave downlink so we could see on the ground in real-time what the FLIR captured up in the air. But, again, we have no budget.'

Owning the plane in the first place is a two-pronged cost-savings. For law-enforcement agencies, owning a plane is cheaper in the long term than renting one, which the police bureau did from 1982 to 1999. Owning amounts to $30 per hour to operate rather than $100 per hour. And operating and maintaining any plane is about 90 percent cheaper than the helicopters the air unit cops say they'd prefer.

Helicopters can fly lower and slower and need far less room to take off and land than do planes. But even television news stations acknowledge that helicopters are far more expensive.

Teresa Burgess, general manager of KPTV (12), said her television news outlet leases its helicopter in partnership with KOIN (6). She could not recall specific figures, but said, 'Outside of staffing expenses, in news it's our biggest expense.'

It's planes or nothing

As early as the 1950s, Portland police dallied with the idea of using helicopters.

'But that kind of went away,' Larsen said. 'It comes up every now and again because we'd all like to be flying helicopters. We don't believe, though, that the city is in a financial position where it's ever going to happen, so it's either the planes or nothing at all.'

Using a plane also forces the unit's officers to be a little more creative. Law-enforcement agencies usually attach the FLIR cameras, made by FLIR Systems Inc. of Southwest Portland, to helicopters.

The police bureau bought its first plane, a 1978 model, for $38,500 in July 1999. Modifications include a police radio system and a cutout window below the left wing that allows cops to more easily see the ground. Accompanying the FLIR is an onboard monitor and CD drive, with a joystick to move the cameras.

'Guys that are pretty good at video games are pretty good at this,' Larsen said. 'So, basically, I suck.'

The plane feels small and cramped, even more so after hours of flying.

'Man, I gotta tell you, I get out of that thing sometimes and my knees creak,' Alexander said.

The second plane is being modified almost identically to the first one, but is larger.

'I'm looking forward to that,' Alexander said. 'That will be nice.'

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