Protecting you from a bird's-eye view: The Joint Aviation Unit

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While you are on the ground, the Joint Aviation Unit is your eyes in the sky.

“Our job in law enforcement is to go out and protect and serve,” said Sgt. Joe Vangorder, JAU pilot. “From the air it is very similar, but from 800 feet or 1000 feet.”

“I love catching the bad guys,” said JAU pilot Justin Poirot. “Once we’re above them it’s hard to get away.”

The Gainesville Police Department and the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office makeup the JAU.

“There are just so many things we can do from the air that people may not even think about,” said Officer Ben Tobias, a JAU tactical flight officer.

These authorities don’t only chase down the bad guys, but they may search for a lost child, or adult with Alzheimer’s who has wandered away. During the day or at night, their technology works equally as well.

“We can see certain heat images that are in heavily wooded areas that with a naked eye or even with a flashlight we’re just not going to see,” Vangorder said.

Infrared cameras show the heat radiating off of bodies even from one thousand feet up. From those cameras, the JAU can find that person who went missing or even the criminal on the loose. As long as the criminals are running, they definitely are not hiding…they actually are making their image even brighter.

“The most rewarding thing in the world is to see that little spec on your screen,” Tobias said. “That’s the suspect may have committed a really terrible crime and so for us to be able to find that, we’re the only people that are able to do that, is just fantastic.”

Having those eyes in the sky is also reassuring for law enforcement on the ground.

The JAU can direct those on the ground to the criminal, or even tell them if they need to get out of harms way.

“I know that if we have them up in the air that we have a great chance of catching the people that we’re after,” said Lt. Jeff Blundell of the Gainesville Police Department.

“You can’t replace someone that’s above you at 800 feet,” Vangorder said. “I mean, they can see if I’m standing on one side of a building. They can see where I’m standing, the building beside me, 10 or 12 buildings over and as they are orbiting they can see all sides of those buildings.”

The JAU has three helicopters just filled with technology. So how much is this costing you?

“The best part is this is not your tax dollars,” Tobias said. “If you’re a drug dealer, it’s your proceeds that are helping us do that because all of the money for the aviation unit comes from contraband forfeiture. Funds…meaning drug dealers and when we’re ceasing drug money.”

So to the average person on the ground, you are not paying a cent.

“It is a dream job for me,” Poirot said. “A lot of officers get to come out to fly with us and say I have the best job in the department, and I agree…it is.

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