Talk about a year-end gift.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department expects to receive a new $1.56 million airplane by the end of this month to increase its air surveillance capabilities.
The turbo-prop Cessna will have infrared imaging and GPS technology for tracking criminals on the run and for finding lost hikers and stranded boaters.
A federal Homeland Security grant administered through the Port of Tacoma is paying for the entire cost of the Cessna 206 and its specialized electronics and equipment package.
Lt. Rusty Wilder said the new plane is stronger and faster than the Sheriff’s Department’s other two planes.
The agency will continue using an older-model Cessna 206 with infrared imaging. But the department will sell its 1978 Cessna 182 that lacks the infrared technology.
Because two planes will have a heat-sensing infrared device on their wings, the department will double its capacity to track criminals by air, said Wilder, of the criminal investigation division.
When one plane comes down to refuel, the other can take off.
“We have that redundancy,” Wilder said. “We’ve never had that before.”
The department also could use both planes at the same time for a major event. The images can be viewed in the planes’ cockpits and on the ground in an incident command unit.
Lt. Jim Kelly, who’s in charge of the air support unit, said aerial surveillance is irreplaceable.
“The ability to see above what’s happening is important when it comes to the safety of the people on the ground and being able to capture the criminal and also being able to find a lost hiker,” Kelly said.
A tactical flight officer in the planes can warn deputies on the ground when they’re approaching suspects and need to set up a containment area.
Kelly cited an incident a few months ago when a suspect in a vehicle pursuit in the South Hill area bailed out of a car into a wooded area. The three-member crew on the plane tracked the suspect using the infrared device.
“They were able to lead the deputy on the ground to where the suspect was,” Kelly said. He was taken into custody.
In August, the Sheriff’s Department’s air unit located four stranded rafters at night on the Nisqually River at the Pierce-Thurston county border. With the crew’s help, the department’s swift-water rescue team found and rescued three of the rafters, who had managed to get out of the river in a remote area. A fourth rafter was rescued by a fire department.
The Sheriff’s Department applied for and received the $1.6 million grant through the Port Security Grant Program. The plane also will be used to fly security missions for the port, Wilder said.
The new plane is currently being outfitted in Hillsboro, Ore., with its electronics package. The advanced electronics equipment for law enforcement cost $720,000. That’s nearly as much as the $841,000 price tag for the plane, called a Cessna T206H Stationair.
The department is negotiating with a broker to sell its old Cessna 182. The plane’s value is as much as $150,000. But in a down economy, it’s not likely to fetch that much, Kelly said.
Money from the sale will go back to the Sheriff’s Department, said Gary Robinson, the county’s budget and finance director.
The department’s two planes are based at Thun Field on South Hill. The air support unit has six pilots, most of them deputies or detectives. The unit is a part-time operation and a secondary assignment for those officers. Kelly said the unit tries to fly twice a week.
Because the unit is part-time, it’s not used for traffic enforcement, such as speeding tickets. The department relies on reciprocal arrangements with sheriff’s departments for King and Snohomish counties when it needs a helicopter.
Next year, the Sheriff’s Department is getting another new tool: a $730,000 saltwater patrol and rescue boat.
The Sheriff’s Department expects the boat will be built and delivered by April 30, just in time to beat the expiration of another Homeland Security grant for $525,000, said Lt. Peter Cropp, manager of the marine services unit. The department received that grant after another agency turned down the money.Steve Maynard: steve.maynard@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/crime @TNTstevemaynard