A black plastic oval mounted on the roof of a Truckee police SUV is helping local law enforcement spot prowlers in the dark or search for a missing person at night.
The department has owned two hand-held infrared video cameras for nearly five years, but a recent Homeland Security grant has enabled the department to mount a new thermal image camera on a police vehicle.
The $10,000 contraption is used to detect an object or environment at night without using a flashlight or search light. The camera is able to distinguish an image based on its temperature, so humans and other warm-blooded animals are easily recognized, said Truckee Police Sgt. Tim Hargrove.
"There are so many uses for them it's unbelievable," Hargrove said.
For example, Hargrove said there have recently been numerous reports of a prowler in Glenshire, as well as an abundance of vehicle thefts around Truckee.
If officers are able to respond within 10 to 15 minutes of a burglary, the thermal image camera will illuminate warm hand prints on cars, or fresh footprint tracks, leading police in the right direction.
"We're able to see things you wouldn't see with the naked eye," Hargrove said. "It also tells us what thieves are looking for, whether it's siphoning gas or checking for unlocked doors."
Truckee Police Officer Dan Renfrow said the device works well in the area because of the stretches of fields and forests that accommodate hiding suspects. The camera can also be used on boats during summer months for rescue missions or simply better nighttime vision.
Renfrow said officers recently responded to a domestic dispute in Truckee where one of the parties allegedly ran off into the woods. Thanks to the infrared camera, police were able to find the armed suspect before he escaped.
"If the officer in this case did not have the equipment, he probably would have never located the man or found out he was armed," Renfrow said. "It definitely could have been an officer safety issue."
While the Placer County Sheriff's Department does not own a thermal image camera, Sheriff Capt. Jeff Granum said he is glad a neighboring agency does.
"Each department works together very closely, so what often happens with expensive equipment like this is when the need arises, we share resources," Granum said.