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Catching a killer in Saskatchewan from the sky
The role of aerial surveillance in a police investigation for Saskatchewan's worst mass killing
Like most people in Saskatchewan, I received an emergency alert on my phone on Sep 4, 2022 notifying me of a situation on the James Smith Cree Nation in Northern Saskatchewan. When news later suggested that the suspects had been seen in Regina, SK, about 300 km south, I took to Twitter and Reddit to learn more about what was happening. Reddit is where I first heard that the RCMP had sent a plane up to circle above Regina searching for the suspects and their vehicle. The topic I have for you today is digging a little deeper into what RCMP and municipal police are doing with aerial surveillance in the province, and public tracking of private and commercial aircraft.
While familiar with tracking domestic commercial flights on websites such as flightradar24.com, I wasn't familiar with the idea of tracking non-commercial flights such as those for police groups like the RCMP or municipal police, which is made possible through a technology known as ADS-B. As a key component of air traffic safety in North America, planes are equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast, or ADS-B, devices that both transmit and receive unencrypted signals on the aircraft's position and heading. Since the ADS-B signals transmitted by aircraft are unencrypted, they can be read by anyone and used to track aircraft anywhere where an antenna has been installed to receive these signals. What follows below is a recounting of the bleak events occurring between September 4, 2022 when the murders were committed and the capture of one of the suspects on September 7, 2022 as told by the digital history left by air emergency and surveillance aircraft in Saskatchewan skies.
The first Shock Trauma Air Rescue Service (STARS) helicopter departed from Saskatoon at just after 6:00 CST on the morning of September 4, 2022 after 911 calls were made from James Smith Cree Nation. This is followed shortly after by a second STARS helicopter and a plane operated by the Saskatoon Police Service departing Saskatoon as well as a third STARS helicopter departing from Regina shortly after 7:00 CST.
The flight path for the first STARS helicopter is a little difficult to follow as this aircraft makes a number of stops that day and ventures in and out of ADS-B ground coverage in Saskatchewan. The same can be said for the flight path of the STARS helicopter that left Regina and the second Saskatoon STARS helicopter due to spotty tracking coverage over the province as it heads north to the James Smith Cree Nation.
The flight path of the Saskatoon Police Plane is a little easier to understand, however. Although we don't know what this plane was doing north of Wakaw Saskatchewan that day, it’s likely that it included a lot of circling above the area of interest looking for clues regarding the whereabouts of the two people suspected of killing and injuring a large number of people.
When two STARS helicopters begin to arrive back in Saskatoon between 9:00 CST and 9:30 CST, presumably getting injured victims to the hospital care they need, there is still no word to the public on where the suspects might be. Shortly before the last of the three STARS helicopters involved during the day arrives back in Saskatoon at 11:00 CST, an RCMP surveillance plane takes off in Regina on a tip that the suspect’s vehicle was seen in the city’s east end.
The search in Regina
Around 10:30 CST, a Pilatus PC-12 airplane owned by the RCMP took off in Regina in search of the suspects who had reportedly been seen on Arcola Avenue. The plane circled above the city for several hours before ceasing the search just before 15:00 CST. In the image below of the flight path, one can see what aerial surveillance looks like as the RCMP plane circles above Regina, SK.
Some form of resolution to the hunt for those suspected of the mass killing came on September 7, 2022 at around 15:30 CST just south of Rosthern, Saskatchewan. At 14:58 UTC on September 7, 2022, the same RCMP plane that had circled over Regina for hours on September 4, 2022 appears on radar west of Melfort. I say that the plane appears on radar instead of takes off from Melfort since coverage of ADS-B signals in Saskatchewan, especially in the north, are poor and aircraft will disappear from tracking at times. (This highlights for me, again, that there must be several black holes of ADS-B recording coverage in the province where we aren’t able to see what police and military craft are doing to surveil citizens.)
In the image below, we can see the plane with callsign CGMPW suddenly appear just west of Melfort, do a quick loop and head towards Rosthern where it circles briefly during the capture of the suspect and then heads back towards the Melfort area. We also see in this image, that the Saskatoon Police Service plane again joins in the hunt for the person suspected of the crimes on September 4, 2022, however, it appears as though the suspect must have been captured just as they arrive in the airspace above Hague as they turn around and head back to Saskatoon.
In this final image below we can see what the Saskatoon Police Service plane does after returning to Saskatoon airspace. This is what roughly 5 hours of police surveillance from the air looks like over an urban area. While I definitely felt some comfort knowing that the RCMP was flying above Regina looking for the suspected mass murders, I also feel mixed emotions and a little discomfort knowing that the Regina Police will soon be joining the list of police organizations in Canada that regularly surveil urban areas as the Saskatoon Police can been observed doing many nights each week.
I’m finding the data available through services like adsbexchange.com fascinating, and I’m glad to know that while the RCMP and municipal police forces have the ability to watch us from the sky, we also have the ability to watch what they are doing through the digital tracks left by ADS-B signals from their aircraft as it seems that this form of aerial surveillance is going to be a part of urban policing for at least the near future.
A last note from Andy
A bit of a different style of writing than I typically do this time, but I hope you still learned something and felt it was worth your time. Thank you for reading, and if you enjoyed the article today, please consider forwarding this to someone else who might be interested in the topic. I’ll be back with another Sask-related data topic next time.
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