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‘We make this safer for everybody’: DPS chopper invaluable tool in tracking, stopping suspects

Nov 7, 2023, 7:36 PM

SOUTH JORDAN  — A newly released aerial video obtained by KSL TV served as a key piece of evidence in an officer-involved incident that resulted in the death of a police dog.

During a pursuit in February 2022, police were following Zachary Alvarenga, 25, who was armed and reportedly threatened a former co-worker with a gun. He was later identified as a member of the National Guard. 

Police called the Utah Department of Public Safety for help during the incident. When it became unsafe for officers on the ground to follow him closely, the helicopter continued to track his exact location.

Utah Highway Patrol Sergeant Nick Napierski said that is one of the main advantages of having help overhead.

“We’re going to follow that guy, that guy’s not going to get away, we’re going to track him right down until he parks the vehicle, goes stationary, then walk ground units in to apprehend him,” he said. 

8 officers ‘justified’ in shooting, killing of gunman who killed police dog

This pursuit was one of more than 175 that DPS helped with last year.

 “When some of these suspects start driving super reckless, and they’re putting all of the public in danger by blowing red lights, and driving the wrong way, really creating a hazardous environment for everybody, the idea is we can get up overhead, keep eyes on the vehicle, the ground units can back off so we make this safer for everybody,” Sgt. Napierski said.

The DPS helicopter camera captured some of the hours-long pursuit, including the moment Alvarenga shot and killed K-9 Maya. Napierski said the camera is capable of filming day or night. 

After Alvarenga fired the shot, three officers then fired back. That’s when Alvarenga fell to the ground on his stomach. Police said he died several minutes later after grabbing his gun, turning to face the officers, and lifting his arm. That’s when officers fired shots at him.

The Salt Lake District Attorney’s office said, this video and others captured that night allowed them to determine this shooting death was justified.

“Anything that we can do to further the public safety throughout the state of Utah, and apprehend these suspects that are out on the loose, that’s our goal,” Napierski said.

DPS hopes more agencies across the state take advantage of their helicopter. The department’s chopper is ready for liftoff nearly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“At any sign of an officer needing help, whether it’s a pursuit, bank robbery, shooting or anything happens, we’re within two minutes of lifting and going out to assist those agencies,” Napierski said.

He said they can also see inside of vehicles and relay critical information to officers on the ground.

“Where they are, where they’re hiding, where they crashed, what home they went into,” Napierski said. “We have GPS overlays that identify streets, house names, everything, so as we’re flying overhead, we can tell him where he’s at, if the suspect throws something out the window.”

Napierski said the helicopter also assists with search and rescue missions, finding runaways, law enforcement blitzes, and extracting people who are lost or injured. 

“That’s extremely difficult for ground units to locate those people, and it’s a lot easier from an aerial perspective,” he said.

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‘We make this safer for everybody’: DPS chopper invaluable tool in tracking, stopping suspects