Thurston County Sheriff Derek Sanders wants a helicopter, GPS trackers, cameras and nets


Thurston County’s Sheriff says he wants a new helicopter, tracking devices, grapple nets and license plate cameras to improve public safety. 

Sheriff Derek Sanders briefed the Board of Commissioners about the requests last week, but it’s still uncertain if the board will approve them soon. 

Contracts for the technology have not been finalized and commissioners are still evaluating their merits. Additionally, Sanders said his office is on a federal waitlist to get the helicopter. The briefings came as the Sheriff’s Office is contending with low staffing and is anticipating changes in state pursuit laws approved earlier this year by the state legislature.

On Wednesday, Sanders gave the board a rundown on the helicopter he wants, specifically a four-seater TH67 helicopter. County documents describe it as a military training helicopter that the county can obtain through a federal program that transfers surplus military property to law enforcement agencies. 

Sanders also updated the board about his requests for GPS tracking devices, grapple nets for vehicles and license plate cameras on Tuesday. He said the first two technologies would be used to de-escalate vehicle pursuits while the cameras would be used to keep track of vehicles of interest on county roadways.

Last month, the state legislature passed an initiative to rollback limits on police pursuits that Democrats passed in recent years. Those changes go into effect in June. 

“I advocated for this law change, but I also don’t want to say, ‘We’re pursuing cars now, so be it,’” Sanders said on Tuesday. “Anything that we can do to mitigate the risk of high-speed chases I want to at least try. That’s been my big thing.”

How would the county use a helicopter? 

Sanders said the helicopter would be used for search and rescue efforts across the county. To that aim, he said it will be outfitted with a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera that the county already owns. 

“Between Capitol Forest and all our waterways, the helicopter would be a much more efficient way to extract people, locate people and assist in those operations compared to just a ground search, which typically includes dozens of volunteers and commissioned staff,” Sanders said. 

County documents show response times to water incidents can be more than 45 minutes on Puget Sound and 30 minutes on rivers with the Sheriff’s Office’s current means. 

The helicopter could cut water rescue response times in half and burn much less fuel than boats at a lower cost per gallon, according to Sanders’ documents. Sanders said county boats burn about 50 gallons of fuel per hour whereas a helicopter would burn 25 gallons per hour.

Sanders said the Sheriff’s Office also could use the helicopter to find and track suspects who are eluding police. Washington State Patrol often helps other jurisdictions with their aircraft, but Sanders said his office cannot rely on them to always be available. 

“(The WSP aircraft) is constantly going up and down the I-5 corridor,” Sanders said. “So, the ability for us to have our own air unit that we can dispatch on our own at our own convenience would be a huge asset for us.”

How much will a helicopter cost the county? 

Sanders said the federal government would provide the helicopter at no cost to the county and his office can absorb fuel and insurance costs within its current budget. He estimated insurance will cost about $15,000.
Maintenance, pilots and an external human rescue system would be provided free of charge by Northwest Helicopters, a private company located at the Olympia Regional Airport, according to the documents. 

Brian Reynolds, president and chief executive officer of Northwest Helicopters, attended the briefing as well. He said he plans to have about five pilots on staff and at least one should be able to respond to requests from the Sheriff’s Office. 

Commissioner Wayne Fournier asked Reynolds how he benefits from this arrangement. Reynolds said this is “strictly a donation to the community.” He said he’s flown in search and rescue operations in the past and believes in their effectiveness.

“I am willing to help the community, help the people and help a program such as this to improve the safety of the county,” Reynolds said.

How do tracking devices, grappler nets and cameras work? 

The GPS tracker is provided by a company called Starchase. The trackers are deployed from a “discreet bumper mount” on the front of a patrol vehicle onto a suspect vehicle, according to county documents. 

Once attached, the documents indicate deputies can use the tracker to follow the vehicle from a distance using a computer or phone app. The Grappler Police Bumper allows deputies to stop a vehicle without performing a precision immobilization technique (PIT) maneuver. This system works by deploying a net that can catch the back wheel of a fleeing vehicle. 

The license plate cameras produced by Flock Safety work by capturing vehicle information, such as license plate numbers, make, model and paint color. This information is automatically uploaded to a searchable online database where it’s stored for 30 days before automatically being deleted, according to county documents.

The city of Olympia is already contracting with Flock Safety to install 16 cameras on the west side near the Capital Mall Triangle and on the Interstate 5 exits on the east side, The Olympian reported last month.

Where does the board stand? 

Sanders proposed buying these items during a Tuesday meeting where the board decides what to include in their upcoming regular meeting agendas. The agenda for the meeting indicates the Sheriff’s Office would spend $76,022 plus shipping and handling for 22 Flock Safety cameras, $48,663 plus shipping and handling for six grappler units, and $42,796 plus shipping and handling for Starchase tracker units. 

The board decided to indefinitely table the agenda item for the cameras, citing lingering privacy concerns and questions about the technology. 

However, Sanders asked that the board move quicker on the other two items because of the looming law changes and recent high-profile pursuits. 

“These next two items aren’t an invasion of privacy,” Sanders said. “They’re not anything other than saving the high-dollar lawsuits that could occur in the event a high-speed pursuit goes wrong.”

Last month, a driver fled from deputies on the Chehalis Western Trail. Deputies used a PIT maneuver to stop the driver but he accelerated in reverse and crashed into a trailer parked in a private driveway. 

On April 7, deputies assisted Lacey police in a pursuit that ended in a wrong-way crash on Interstate 5 in south Thurston County. Police also used a PIT maneuver on that driver, but he rammed patrol vehicles to escape. 

The board ultimately postponed consideration of the grappler units and Starchase trackers to their April 30 board meeting. 

“I think those two pieces of technology that are related to the pursuit safety are important,” Commissioner and Board Chair Tye Menser said. “I’m not there on the Flock thing. I have a lot of concerns.” 

Commissioner Emily Clouse said she wanted more time to review the grappler and Starchase proposals.

“It seems like it could be a good tool to lower the risk of pursuits, but I would just take a little bit more time to look into it before we approve it,” Clouse said.