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The eye in the sky: Troopers deployed by air for traffic enforcement

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For the most part, the drivers never know what hit them.

One moment they’re tailgating the car in front of them or zipping along well above the posted speed limit. Before they know it, there’s a squad car racing up from behind them with red lights flashing and sirens blaring.

Little did the drivers know they were nailed from 2,000 feet above by a nondescript Cessna airplane.

“It makes it a lot easier having the airplane up,” said Altoona Police Lt. David Livingston.

Altoona police worked May 26 with the Wisconsin State Patrol for a traffic enforcement detail involving one of the state’s three airplanes.

State Patrol trooper Bill Lindeman piloted the Cessna 172 that day, which is deployed around the state for traffic enforcement and other assignments. The plane is flown out of Eau Claire’s Chippewa Valley Regional Airport and patrols the northwest portion of the state.

Lindeman said that includes St. Croix County — and will mean a traffic detail here this summer, as it has in years past.

“We try to do at least one a week,” he said.

The State Patrol’s two other planes are based out of Oshkosh and Madison.

Speed patrols are a frequent use for the state planes, and Lindeman said there’s good reason for it. Sometimes that can mean sending a message, like they attempted to in Altoona, where 45 traffic stops were conducted over four hours — all of which tagged drivers for speeding and following too closely.

That particular area — on state Highway 53 — has been a hotspot for crashes, Livingston noted.

“A lot of it can be prevented by following too close,” he said.

Other times, it’s for immediate safety, such as construction zones.

“It’s hard to enforce traffic in those areas because you can’t set up a squad in those areas,” Lindeman said.

Flip of a switch

While the operation involves some advanced planning with agencies working on the ground, the process itself if is decidedly simple: Lindeman circles an area in his plane, finds traffic violators and radios descriptions of the vehicles to squads on the ground.

The tool that allows him to nab speeders is the Visual Average Speed Computer And Recorder (VASCAR) system.

The process works like this: Lindeman watches as a vehicle crosses a designated hash mark on the pavement. He flips a switch on the VASCAR. An eighth of a mile later is another hash mark. He flips the switch again.

Within that distance, the equipment can gauge how fast a vehicle is traveling and the number of seconds it is from the vehicle in front of it.

“It’s a time and distance equation,” Lindeman said.

Then comes the call to the ground.

“Truck going under the bridge right … now,” Lindeman called out over the radio to Livingston.

Livingston, at the front of a three-squad queue lined up on a Highway 53 on-ramp, takes off after the speeder as Lindeman calls in more specifics about the vehicle’s description and violations.

While much of the traffic enforcement Lindeman works is on interstate highways, the State Patrol’s Air Patrol also works details on state highways, as it did in Altoona.

Searches and more

But, Lindeman explained, the Air Patrol is more than a traffic enforcement tool.

The planes can be deployed for search-and-rescue missions, for criminal apprehension and for investigations. The planes are equipped with thermal imaging equipment that can be used to identify abnormal heat sources, such as those coming from marijuana growing operations.

“We can verify that illegal activity is going on,” Lindeman said.

In other cases, the planes can be used to track drug dealers after controlled buys organized by law enforcement when cops can’t tail them.

“We follow them by air,” Lindeman said.

He said he was deployed in recent months to Pierce County during the search for Marya Christiansen, the Hager City woman missing for several days until her body was found inside her van submerged in the Mississippi River’s Back Channel. In that search effort, Lindeman flew the river valley for eight hours looking for signs of Christiansen.

“We do a fair amount” of search and rescue work, he said.

Eye in the sky

Flying is a labor of love for Lindeman, who began piloting planes at age 16.

“I love flying,” the 39-year-old said. “I do it as much as I possibly can.”

He took the State Patrol job in 2014 after working for Altoona police and the Lake Havasu, Ariz., Police Department.

He spends as much as half his time up in the air for work, with the rest of the time spent in a patrol squad. How much time he spends in the plane depends on the weather, the availability of traffic detail — it takes at least four ground units to organize a shift — and what other needs crop up for which the plane could be deployed.

Despite his affinity for the air, he has no complaints about patrolling in a squad, either.

“I love working on the ground, too,” he said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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