When Gwinnett County, Ga., police located suspected killer Brian Nichols in a local apartment complex, they turned to visual images provided by Pictometry International to help in the deployment of officers and evacuation of the complex.

The day before, Nichols had shot to death a judge and three others in an escape from the Fulton County Courthouse, and there was no reason for officials to think he'd be taken easily.

The first step for Maj. Dan Branch, who arrived on the scene as the incident commander for the Gwinnett County, South Precinct that day, was to evacuate the apartment dwellers. He got a sketch of the apartment complex from the landlord, but it wasn't accurate. When the county's Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) van -- equipped with Pictometry -- arrived, officials were able to call up visual images of the complex and its surroundings.

The technology gave police and SWAT members a magnified look at the area. "It gives us a high-resolution visual," Branch said. "It's a great tool to have. You can enhance it, you can zoom in and zoom out. We enlarged the areas outside the inner perimeter to see what areas could be affected in the event there was a volley of gunfire."

Pictometry is an information system that captures digital images, (up to 12 different views) of any property, building, highway or other feature in a kind of three-dimensional format. The software enables users to measure distances, height, elevation and area from the imagery and insert GIS content and other data.

"This helps us get up to speed a lot faster than we normally do," Branch said.

In this case, the visual images showed the complex had a row of garages that the sketch didn't show. Police used the garages for cover. Nichols was watching the scene unfold from a television set when he surrendered, Branch said. "He saw the firepower and manpower surrounding him and gave up."

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor