High-tech cameras on state helicopters are ‘game-changers,’ UHP says
Official: Using the helicopter and its video capabilities may help UHP avoid dangerous high-speed chases and give officers on the ground time to prepare to take a suspect into custody safely
Police from multiple agencies had already attempted twice to pull 25-year-old Zachary Tyler Alvarenga over, but he refused to stop and each ensuing chase with officers had to be called off due to public safety concerns.
But overhead, one of the Utah Department of Public Safety’s helicopters was able to follow Alvarenga from a distance. Newly released video from the helicopter depicts just how useful the helicopter can be for police officers. In this case, not only was the helicopter able to keep an eye on Alvarenga's location, but it recorded his actions and relayed pertinent information to officers on the ground who were “loosely” following in unmarked patrol cars.
“Mr. Alvarenga continued to drive as ‘Star 9’ monitored his movement and West Jordan police officers attempted to negotiate with him over the phone,” according to the final report from the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office about the Feb. 17, 2022, incident, which ended in a fatal police shooting.
After following his car for two hours, from Springville back to South Jordan, the helicopter crew was able to help coordinate ground officers in spiking Alvarenga’s tires. Alvarenga stopped at Costco, 3571 W. 10400 South, to refuel. In video recorded by the helicopter and obtained by KSL.com through a public records request, officers on the ground can be seen waiting for Alvarenga to drive out of the parking lot so spike strips can be deployed.
“As Mr. Alvarenga fled, Star 9 continued to call out his movements and officers loosely followed without lights or sirens,” the report states.
About six minutes later, Alvarenga, while stopped for a red light on 11400 South, got out of his car and ran. A short time later, the daylong effort to take Alvarenga into custody culminated in a parking lot at 1750 W. 11400 South, where Alvarenga shot and killed a police K-9 before he was shot and killed by officers.
But while he was on the ground, the Utah Department of Public Safety helicopter was able to zoom in on Alvarenga and report that he was still moving and warned officers, “Gun is still in his right hand. He's manipulating it.” Minutes later, while Alvarenga was still on his stomach facing away from the officers, he turned in the direction of officers and lifted his elbow and forearm, prompting five officers to shoot.
The officers were recently found to be legally justified in using deadly force against Alvarenga. In issuing his decision, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill also highlighted the use of the state helicopter in helping bring the volatile situation to an end.
Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Nick Napierski, who oversees the Aero Bureau, says each of the department’s three helicopters is equipped with a high-tech camera.
“Last year we assisted in 300 arrests,” he said. “The whole idea is to make these things safer for the officers on the ground and the public as well.
“We have a better perspective when we’re overhead. We can see in the vehicles. The other day we were on a (barricaded suspect) and we could see the driver had a handgun in his hand while he was sitting in the vehicle. So we were able to relay that information to ground units that the driver is armed with a handgun sitting in the driver’s seat. That changes their tactics or how they're going to approach or deal with that problem,” Napierski said.
By using the helicopter and its video capabilities, Napierski says the hope is to avoid dangerous high-speed chases and help give officers on the ground time to prepare to take a suspect into custody safely.
“The whole idea is when some of these suspects start driving super reckless and they're putting all of the public in danger in blowing red lights and driving the wrong way and really creating a hazardous environment for everybody, the idea is we can get up overhead and keep eyes on the vehicle. The ground units can back off so we can make it safer for everybody. And then we're going to continue to track that individual and continue to follow them all the way to their landing point,” he said.
“And then we're going to walk ground units in and tell them exactly where they are, where they're hiding, where they crashed, what home they went into,” Napierski said. “Had a pursuit the other day. It fled from St. George down toward Mesquite. That flight crew was able to pick them up 11 to 12 miles out, they were able to pick the vehicle up and locate it.”
Last year, Napierski said the Department of Public Safety helicopters assisted in 175 police chases statewide.
“(The officer on the ground) doesn't have to worry about what street he's on. We have GPS overlays that identify streets, house names, everything. As we’re flying overhead, we can tell (the officer) where (the suspect) is at. If the suspect throws something out the window we can tag it on the video and give them the coordinates of where the (item) was dropped or thrown from the vehicle. We'll call out the pursuit, do all the coordinations for them,” he said.
“We had one the other day going toward a school zone with kids out at crosswalks. So we were able to advise that they were approaching a school zone and that there were pedestrians all over the road, so they were able to terminate and back off,” the sergeant said.
“I believe this has been a huge game-changer for local agencies. We're trying to get the word out to agencies statewide that we're available for this.”