County boosts anti-pot efforts with infrared gear

High-tech surveillance gear will soon augment the Jackson County Sheriff's Department's arsenal being used to fight Mexican marijuana cartels.

County commissioners voted 2-1 Wednesday to spend $810,726 for infrared scanners, bulletproof vests and a new search and rescue mobile command center.

Commissioner Dave Gilmour, who cast the only no vote, said, "Eight hundred thousand dollars — that's a lot of money."

Gilmour didn't object to the equipment requested by Sheriff Mike Winters, but thought the county should apply for federal money to buy it rather than dip into reserves.

The gear, including helicopter-mounted infrared sensors, will help protect deputies entering illegal marijuana gardens. It will also be used to locate hot spots in forest fires and for tracking cars in high-speed pursuits. Infrared scanners detect heat, which makes them useful for spotting heat-producing objects from the air, particularly at night.

Winters said he looked into federal grants, but money is tight.

"We haven't got the federal support for this type of equipment," he said.

He said orders for the equipment will be placed as soon as possible.

Winters said his department has cut back millions of dollars over the past few years and is down 30 deputies. He said that between 2003 and July 30, 2007 the Sheriff's Department didn't use $5.2 million that it had budgeted. During fiscal year 2006-07, the Sheriff's Department budget was $20.3 million but it spent just $19 million, a savings of $1.3 million.

"We have given back to the county more than we're asking for in this request," he told commissioners.

Winters said the new gear, which includes bullet-proof vests and Taser stun guns, will help protect deputies and will also help them perform their duties more efficiently.

"We have vests out there that won't deter a rifle round," said Winters.

The new equipment will help deputies determine where criminals might be hiding before they enter a marijuana garden. The marijuana growers, said Winters, "know the trails out there better than we do."

The new equipment will allow the sheriff's helicopter to fly about 2,000 feet above the ground, which will make it less intrusive for people on the ground. Previously, the helicopter hovered at less than 1,000 feet during surveillance.

Commissioner C.W. Smith said the surveillance equipment will help in high-speed police pursuits by allowing a helicopter to follow a car from a safer distance and providing a video record. The scanning equipment has an auto-tracking feature that locks on to a vehicle's heat signature, making it relatively easy for the helicopter to follow.

The infrared scanner can also determine where pollution is entering local streams, Smith said.

All the video data collected will be downloaded and can be played in real-time on high-resolution law enforcement computers, he said.

Gilmour said the county has other problems that need to be addressed after most departments faced cutbacks this year. He said residents have complained to him that dust on rural roads has increased since the road budget was cut, and another person urged the county to get rid of old junk cars and other hazardous materials on a neighbor's property.

"A lot of things affect people's health and safety," he said.

Jackson County's budget problems began when Congress failed to renew the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act, eliminating $23 million that flowed annually into Jackson County.

Congress and President Bush agreed to a one-year extension of the program early this summer.

With the money expected by October, county officials are considering reopening libraries that were closed April 6 to save money. A private contractor has proposed operating the libraries for $4.3 million annually, (about half the cost prior to the closure) but the libraries will be open only half as many hours.

Commissioner Jack Walker disagreed with Gilmour, pointing out that better detection equipment will help in search and rescue missions such as the effort mounted for the James Kim family in December 2006.

"Nobody dies because a library doesn't open or because there's dust on our roads," Walker said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or

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