Tenn. officials say high-tech revolutionizes police work

Sonar devices, thermal imaging, fingerprinting machines, and night vision goggles are changing the way police do their job.

By Dick Cook
Chattanooga Times

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Earlier this week, Bradley County Sheriff's Department investigators enlisted the help of Tennessee wildlife resource officers to try to find a submerged car in Parksville Lake in Polk County, Tenn.

Bradley County Sgt. Bill Coultry said the side-scan sonar Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Officers Joe Bush and Ken Ripley used in the search was an invaluable tool to peer 50 feet into the water.

"We found six cars near the old roadbed," Sgt. Coultry said. Divers will come back later and try to learn more, he said.

The sonar device is just one instance of technology that police and firefighters use to investigate crime and save lives. Many sheriff's departments and rural fire departments in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia have acquired high-tech devices that have revolutionized the way they do their jobs, officials said.

Law enforcement uses specialized technology to see in the dark, record informants' conversations, track criminals' movements and verify the identities of people who want to hide, officials said.

"There's no question that today law enforcement is much more successful in solving crimes than 30 years ago by using technology," Catoosa County, Ga., Sheriff Phil Summers said. "(Technology) has been a major change in law enforcement, not only in investigations but in administration."

Sheriff Summers said in-car video cameras, which have been around for a decade, help him dispute complaints against officers during traffic stops.

His department also has the latest generation of the radar gun.

"It can be used as a crime scene tool as well," he said. "It does measurements and can lay out a scene. It gives us a computerized drawing of the crime scene."

Sheriff Summers said the equipment was purchased through grants.

State and federal grants have helped smaller, cash-strapped police and fire departments get sophisticated equipment, officials said.

Walker County, Ga., Sheriff Steve Wilson said the county's special operations team used Homeland Security money to get night-vision goggles.

"It gives them better mobility and access to areas they have under surveillance at night," Sheriff Wilson said.

Both Walker and Catoosa counties have LiveScan fingerprinting machines that do not use ink or paper and can search a database for a person fingerprinted in North Georgia is wanted anywhere in the country, officials said.

Officer Ripley, a TWRA accident investigator, said he's been using sonar technology for less than two years.

"We focus primarily on boats associated with boating accidents," Officer Ripley said earlier this week. "We've been successful in three (cases) that I'm aware of."

In Etowah, Tenn., the fire department uses a thermal imaging camera to find people in smoke-filled houses, firefighter Donnie Fewell said.

"We use it on every structure fire," Mr. Fewell said of the camera purchased with federal grant money in 2001. "Not only do we look for people with it, but we can find hot spots in walls."

Mr. Fewell said that before they got the camera, firefighters would enter a smoky house and work blind.

"We would go room to room and search on our hands and knees," he said. "It was hard and it was dangerous.

"(The camera) is an exceptional piece of equipment that every department should have," Mr. Fewell said.

Bradley County used about $350,000 from a Homeland Security grant to equip a crime lab in its jail, officials said.

David Brown, assistant director of chemistry for Bradley County Forensic Services, said the emphasis in the lab is on drug identification.

"We've got a Fourier Transform InfraRed spectrometer that is used to identify drug chemistry," Mr. Brown said. "It also can be used for identifying unknown mysterious powders. We've got two. One is portable so it can be taken to the scene."

Sheriff Summers said federal grant money for law enforcement has "dried up" in recent years.

"We've applied for a $5.8 million grant for communications through Georgia Homeland Security," Sheriff Summers said. "We know we're not going to get totally funded, but we're hoping to see big dollars from that request."

Copyright 2007 Chattanooga Publishing Company

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