Feeling the heat: How is climate affecting law enforcement?

14 September 2023

Fugitive Danelo Cavalcante was finally taken into custody on Wednesday, two weeks after escaping from a United States prison in the state of Pennsylvania. The prolonged manhunt received tons of media attention before officials successfully tracked Cavalcante with thermal imaging technology and a K-9 unit helped to take him down — law enforcement strategies that in both cases can be affected by heat and humidity.

Last week, temperatures in the search zone reached 94°F with the humidity making it feel like 103°F. The conditions led to a bit of interference when using thermal imaging devices because they picked up more “hotspots” that needed to be checked out, according to Lt. Col. George Biven of the Pennsylvania State Police.

It also meant that Loki, the K-9 partner pictured above, was struck with a heat-related illness while trying to find Cavalcante. Loki was taken to a veterinary hospital for treatment and successfully recovered, but not before it became clear that the weather did, in fact, affect the police work.

Climate change, and heat and humidity in particular, pose challenges to law enforcement but the extent of the impacts remain unclear. For example, the bulletproof vests worn by police and U.S. Border Control officers who eventually stopped Cavalcante have always felt hot for law enforcement personnel to wear.

The materials used to make body armor will normally degrade with heat and humidity exposure over time, especially in direct sunlight. Yet a 2020 study for the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology found the long-term performance was about the same when aramids, the chemicals that give body-armor materials like Kevlar their strength, were exposed to various levels of high heat and humidity without significant degradation.

That doesn’t mean that law enforcement agencies aren’t considering climate change when evaluating their equipment and training needs. “Climate change poses one of the most serious threats to regional and global security today, and the police will be on the frontlines as first responders,” said Portugal’s Luís Carrilho during his tenure as United Nations Police Adviser and Director of the Police Division, completed in December 2022.

In the U.S., that means that some agencies are seeking out equipment and gear typically used by the military, a strategy that’s often controversial. There are some 8,200 law enforcement agencies that participate in a Defense Logistics Agency program to acquire gear, with June 2023 records showing first aid kits sent to Alabama, thermal imaging cameras sent to Indiana, and small boats sent to California.

Increasingly, local agencies are citing climate risk and response when requesting gear, though exactly how that gear holds up in the changing climate—the battery life for communication equipment, say—isn’t always clear.

Much of the research on policing is focused on disaster preparedness and frontline response for climate emergencies like wildfire or floods. Or, experts study how factors like the rising heat will affect the likelihood of crime and conflict in the communities they serve.

But the two-week search for Cavalcante raises questions about extreme weather and operational effects, quite apart from response to a landfalling hurricane or climate-driven extreme rainfall. And while the many fans of Loki were glad to hear he is back to work, the incident points to questions about more climate adaptation in the future.


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