SAN ANTONIO – The Terrell Hills Police Department is fighting back against car thieves with technology no other agency in Bexar County is using.
Officers installed their first thermal imagery camera mounted on the squad car spotlight.
It’s an effort to stop car break-ins, the most prevalent crime in some North Side neighborhoods.
“These guys will park a car, get out and walk the streets,” Lt. Bill Foley with Terrell Hills Police says.
Quiet roads with dim streetlights: the perfect setting to lurk in yards, steal from cars – and if one turns the corner, jump into the shadows.
"These guys use the camouflage of darkness to hide behind a bush when that officer drives by,” Lt. Foley says.
He says that’s how thieves hit dozens of cars during recent crime sprees in Alamo Heights, Olmos Park and Terrell Hills.
"We as police officers should utilize every opportunity we have and every device we can afford to catch them,” Lt. Foley says.
A nearly $4,000 gadget – the spotlight-mounted thermal imagery camera – will give Terrell Hills officers nearly X-ray vision.
"Burglars beware: we can see in the dark,” Lt. Foley says.
On most patrols, officers can only see with their car spotlights. But now they’ll get to see crooks hiding, because the thermal imagery cameras pick up body heat.
“You’re looking for heat signatures in yards,” Lt. Foley says.
It sounds complicated, so News 4 asked Officer Ben Lopez to hide in bushes as a demonstration.
"You can pan and tilt the camera using the spotlight control,” Lt. Foley says as he drove by in the squad car.
Officer Lopez wasn’t visible to the naked eye, but Lt. Foley could tell someone was in the bushes by using a monitor connected to the camera.
"His head is giving off a whole lot of heat and he just jumps right out at us on the screen,” Lt. Foley says. "If we're patrolling and drive by this house and get a heat signature like that, the guys are going to stop and check that out."
The thermal imagery picks up more than just people.
"You can really see the heat still in that engine,” Lt. Foley says.
Officers can tell if a car’s just been parked, or if stolen items were stashed in a bush.
"Police have located weapons that have been thrown using this type of technology,” Lt. Foley says.
It’s not a substitute for locking car doors or hiding valuables.
"Our citizens, they're the first line of defense by protecting their items,” Lt. Foley says.
But it’s another roving eye to catch crooks in the act and take them off the streets.