Night vision: One department's impressive experience
Criminals depending on darkness to hide themselves and their misdeeds are well advised to avoid Howell Twp., N.J.
The 70 patrol officers on the Howell Twp. Police Dept. have proved adept at “taking back the night” on a wide variety of calls, aided by an assortment of night-vision equipment that allows them, in effect, to turn darkness into day.
H.T.P.D., one of 53 township departments in fast-growing Monmouth County in east-central New Jersey, is among an increasing number of agencies finding night vision to be a key tool, not only for SWAT call-outs but for successful everyday patrol.
Howell’s cops police a 62-square-mile mix of commercial strips, farms, wooded wildlands, and residential developments ranging from low-income housing projects to multi-million dollar estates. Across this jurisdiction of more than 52,000 population, night vision allows them to detect illegal activities that otherwise would be concealed, arrest offenders who otherwise could escape, and protect officers who otherwise would be vulnerable to attack.
“We keep six units in our muster room, from first generation night scopes to the latest Gen III Night Enforcer PVS-14 from ITT Corporation,” says Ptl. Bernie Fowler. “One or more of these is out with patrol virtually every night, and we can quickly access more if we need them.”
Says Capt. Jeff Mayfield: “We use night vision so often we usually don’t even put it in our reports any more. It’s become commonplace equipment that makes things possible that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.”
A sampling of Howell’s versatile applications of this technology proves the point:
Storage Yard Prowler
Late one Friday night, Ptl. Fowler and his partner, Scott Revilak, were surveilling a schoolyard, the source of “tons of complaints from neighbors” about drug activity. “We couldn’t approach the scene in a patrol car without being seen, so we set up in nearby woods with night-vision goggles,” Fowler recalls.
Their stakeout got aborted when a shots-fired complaint came in from a large auto body and vehicle storage complex a few miles away, in an area known for gang problems. They responded as backup.
The assigned officer was already on the premises when they arrived. The sprawling complex was “very dark, nearly pitch black,” but they could see that he had begun to search the grounds by flashlight.
As they left their car and moved into the dark for concealment, Fowler donned the night-vision goggles—and quickly detected something that had not been visible before: the crouched figure of a man, hiding in bushes along a fence line.
“He was tracking the responding officer’s movement by watching his flashlight,” Fowler says. “He was hunkered down real good, and you had to wonder if he was laying in wait for the officer, because he could have easily run into woods around the property.”
Fowler popped his own flashlight on the subject, and after a brief foot pursuit, Revilak brought him down and he was taken into custody. He turned out to be an employee of the place who’d been fired over a month ago. He claimed he was there to get his car, parked in the storage yard. He was charged with defiant trespassing, obstruction of justice, and resisting arrest.
“We were never sure of his intent,” Fowler says. “We never found a weapon to explain the ‘shots’ neighbors thought they heard. But more important, thanks to night vision, we were able to apprehend this subject before we could find out if he was waiting to attack the other officer. Without that equipment, we would never have seen him, without giving our position away.”
A subject who was stopped for a traffic violation was discovered to have a quantity of methamphetamine in his possession. He agreed to roll over on his supplier, an outlaw biker who had a string of weapon offenses on his resume.
The dealer operated out of a two-story house in a remote, “very rural” location, which presented a problem in serving a search warrant: the house sat in the middle of a “wide open” field, making it dangerously difficult to approach without being detected.
Capt. Mayfield, who headed the ESU team assigned to hit the place, describes their strategy:
“We figured that waiting until nightfall would be our best chance, but still, getting across the field, a distance of about 100 yards, could be problematic. We took a night-vision scope off of a rifle and used it as a monocular.
“Starting at about 9:30 p.m., two officers surveilled the place for about 90 minutes. They could see people coming in and out of the house, but we never felt our target left and we didn’t see anything threatening.” The scope/monocular continued to be used as the full six-officer unit moved in for the raid.
“We did a two-team entry, one in the front door and one up the rear, outside stairway to the second floor,” Mayfield says. “The operation was a total success. The suspect never knew what hit him. We also got some drugs, several other people, and a couple of guns—all with no officers hurt and no shots fired.”
With night vision, says Ptl. Luis Segarra, “you can park with your lights off and check a neighborhood for suspicious people walking around.” Also, in areas troubled with car burglaries, Howell officers have been able to drive around with their lights off in an effort to surprise offenders who would “duck down or hide in the woods the moment they saw headlights.” Trying lights-out patrol without night vision, “you can imagine how hitting a parked car would go over!” Segarra says.
Fowler favors night vision over a flashlight or spotlight for visually clearing large areas. “You can safely clear an entire park without getting out of your car,” he says. “It’s very comforting from an officer-survival standpoint. You don’t have a focused beam of light showing everyone where you are.”
H.T.P.D. Det. Robert Ortenzi recalls the arrest of a major pot dealer made possible by night vision during a joint investigation with the New Jersey State Police. Concealed in a car 200 yards away, investigators were able to watch the dealer emerge from his residence in a new housing development “and place a large bag of marijuana in some bushes on his property. The suspect was then observed removing the bag and handing it off to a C.I.,” who turned it over to the police.
This was the first of two controlled buys, leading to a warrant on the house and an arrest—“only possible due to utilizing night vision,” Ortenzi says.
Suspects in Flight
A driver disappeared, leaving a badly damaged vehicle behind, after a one-car crash near an Interstate highway. Howell officers set up a perimeter and began a search.
First, they looked with flashlights. No results. But Ptl. Tom Matthews had a gut feel the missing driver was still in the area. He requested that someone bring night vision gear to the scene, and the hunt was renewed. Bingo!
The suspect was quickly apprehended within the perimeter, hiding on an egg farm. He was charged with leaving the scene of an accident.
On a different night, another fleeing driver started out with more serious crimes. First he stole about $3,000 worth of electronics and construction equipment from a building site. Then he stole a car from a gas station to haul his loot away in.
A little later, alerted by a BOLO on the stolen car, a Howell corporal spotted the vehicle, and other officers joined in a pursuit. “He turned into a residential driveway and jumped out of the car,” recalls Ptl. T. J. Hurley. “The car kept going down into some woods and a stream, and the guy disappeared into the trees.”
A search commenced in the potentially treacherous woods, led by a K-9 handler and another officer, both outfitted with night vision goggles. After 90 minutes of “moving with complete stealth made possible by the night vision,” officers discovered the suspect in a deeply recessed area where the rushing stream had cut into a 15-ft. embankment. “With the goggles, we could see him nice and easy,” Hurley says. “He was lying in the water,” trying to mask his scent from the dog.
He fought violently, repeatedly hitting the K-9 and being bitten several times in return. “Five or six of us were in waist-deep water and mud, getting him under control,” Hurley says. “Our uniforms were ruined.
“Every neighbor around there came to see us bring him out. People started clapping when they saw us, and the department was flooded with calls of congratulations. It was a good showing.”
Howell’s night-vision inventory has been accumulated over a period of more than 20 years, with financial aid from a variety of sources: a federal military surplus program, drug interdiction money, a local Vest and Safety Fund, and the latest ITT Night Enforcer equipment through a CEDAP (Commercial Equipment Direct Assistance Program) Grant from the Dept. of Homeland Security.
As PoliceOne reported earlier this year, ITT Night Vision maintains a full-time grants specialist to help, free of charge, in locating, applying for, and getting either funding for night vision equipment or the gear itself. For more information, contact Margaret Stark at (704) 540-0981 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
ITT also provides free familiarization training for units acquired, to ensure that they’re put to use and don’t just gather dust in a property room.
[Our thanks to list-serves conducted by Chief Jeff Chudwin of the Olympic Fields (Ill.) P.D. and Ofcr. Tom Moy of the University of Delaware for their help in researching this report.]