Sheriff’s Department Favors

One Form Of Getting High



July 10, 2014

A lot of experiments by Guilford County government are unmitigated failures, but one Guilford County Sheriff’s Department trial program has become so successful that other law enforcement agencies across the country are taking lessons from Guilford County on how to implement it.


Five years ago, as part of an experimental program, the US Department of Justice loaned the county a light aircraft for the Sheriff’s Department to put to use, and boy did the department do so.  Since then, the plane has flown hundreds of missions and it has been a vital resource in drug busts, searches, criminal surveillance and other activities.  The county’s use of the plane has been so successful that the feds have asked the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department to teach local law enforcement agencies across the country how to incorporate a light aircraft into their crime-fighting efforts.


The plane is a 2006 Sky Arrow 600 Sport that weighs in at 1,238 pounds, carries a maximum load of just 500 pounds and has a top speed of about of 120 miles per hour.  The plane can stay in the air for about three hours on a tank of gas.  Though the specs are somewhat lightweight, the county has been giving the plane heavy use.


Guilford County Sheriff’s Department Col. Randy Powers said there’s no question the small plane has made a big difference in Guilford County, and – in partnership with the surrounding counties – it has been a boon to crime fighting efforts in the area, so much so that other law enforcement agencies across the nation are trying to emulate Guilford County.


“This program has been so successful here that they have actually had our chief pilot travel all across the United States telling other people how to put this same type of program together,” Powers said.


Powers said other law enforcement departments got a loaner plane from the feds for the same trial run, but he added that Guilford County had been head and shoulders above the other departments in the use of the aircraft.


According to Powers, having eyes in the sky has been especially helpful in fighting the drug trade.  Powers said that aircraft had helped in cases where criminals otherwise would have likely eluded officers.


“We had a person who was delivering a large sum of drugs that we couldn’t get enough probable cause to go through his residence and do a search,” he said.  “We knew where they were coming from, but they were coming from the center of a large farm in another county.”


Powers said that, in conjunction with other agencies, the county’s Sky Arrow circled the farm and officers observed from above.


“We actually watched him load the drugs into the car,” Powers said.


He said the plane followed the car until in came to a point in Guilford County just outside the Greensboro city limits and made a delivery.


The drug supplier thought he was handing the stash to drug dealers but it was actually undercover agents.  Powers said one of the cars involved in the drug deal took off and, though there weren’t enough squad cars at the drop-off point to pursue the driver, the plane was able to follow the car until ground units made the arrest.


Powers said drug dealers in Guilford County aren’t expecting to be watched from above.


“Drug dealers do their own counter-surveillance and they’ll change their drop point several times, knowing it’s hard to get vehicles in place without them being seen,” he said.


He said the plane offered another advantage as well.


“It also gives us probable cause to go back and search their location,” he said.


Powers said he wasn’t sure how many millions of dollars worth of drugs had been confiscated as a result of the plane, but he said it was a lot and he added that use of the plane had also led to cash seizures.  As a rule, under federal forfeiture laws, the Sheriff’s Department gets to keep 80 percent of the drug trade money it confiscates.


Powers said the Sky Arrow isn’t just used in drug cases.  He said the plane was also central to the arrest of hard to catch copper thieves at the old Pilot Life building.  Officers tried unsuccessfully to use dogs and other means to catch the copper thieves, but it was when they called in the plane that they were able to finally make the arrest.


Powers said that the department also sends up the plane for some missing persons cases.  He said that so far no one has been found from the air but, since the plane can cover so much territory, it has helped narrow the searches for ground units.


Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes said the plane has proven to be very useful in standoffs, such as the one last month in Pleasant Garden in which a man was shot to death.


“It gives me visibility that I didn’t have before,” Barnes said.


Barnes said some departments like to use drones, but those aren’t for him.


“I’m not interested in drones,” he said.  “I’d rather have two officers in a plane.”


He called the plane a “force multiplier.”


“The plane has been very, very useful,” he said.  “The feds have used our program as an example – ours has been the most successful one they have.”


The sheriff said that now the Greensboro Police Department has plane envy.


“I know that Greensboro wants a plane or a helicopter,” Barnes said.






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