TAMPA — Early on the morning of Feb. 14, two Tampa police officers on a routine air patrol were distracted when a beam of light arrived uninvited into the cockpit of their helicopter.
They directed ground units to a Robles Park home, where police arrested 29-year-old Jeremy Sumpter. He admitted to aiming a laser pointer at the aircraft, police said at the time, and faces up to five years in prison.
Such incidents, once unusual, are becoming almost commonplace. Law enforcement and aviation officials say the number of incidents where someone shined a laser into a passing plane or helicopter has skyrocketed in the last several years.
The problem has become widespread enough that the FBI, in partnership with the Federal Aviation Authority and local law enforcement, has launched a new campaign to crack down on people who aim laser pointers at planes and helicopters. The initiative is meant to educate the public about the severity of the crime — which in 2012 became a federal offense — and offer rewards for anyone with information about someone who has committed such an act.
“There's a lot of people out there who just don't know how dangerous this is,” said Sarasota deputy David Bouffard, one of several law enforcement officials who participated in a press conference Tuesday afternoon to announce the campaign.
He has first-hand knowledge of what it's like trying to fly a helicopter with a bright green light aimed into the cockpit, he said. On a recent air search, Bouffard said, he had to pull his helicopter back because someone kept shining a laser pointer in his direction, blinding him to the point where he couldn't see the controls and monitors.
“It's 10 times more intense than a flash bulb going off in your eyes in a dark room,” he said.
He's far from the only one who has experienced a “laser strike.” The Tampa Police Department has investigated seven such incidents against police aircraft since 2012, authorities said. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has investigated about a dozen in the past few years.
While some people aim laser pointers unintentionally, many times people do it as a prank or because they are annoyed with the sounds of planes and helicopters in their neighborhood, said Jeffery Brunelle, a sergeant with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
“We take every one of them as a legitimate threat to us,” he said.
Since officials began tracking laser strikes against aircraft in 2005, the number of incidents have increased by more than 10-fold, FBI officials said.
About 300 strikes were reported in 2005. Almost 4,000 were reported in 2013.
In Florida, 328 strikes were reported in 2013, with 102 of them in the central Florida region that includes Tampa and Orlando.
Congress passed a bill in 2012 making the act of pointing a laser at an aircraft a federal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, officials said.
“We don't want to prosecute these crimes,” said U.S. Attorney Lee Bentley. “We want this to stop.”
Most of the laser pointers used can be purchased at electronics stores, said Paul Wysopal, special agent in charge of the FBI Tampa Division. People sometimes tamper with them so the beams can reach up to a mile away.
The light starts as a small red or green dot on the ground, but by the time it reaches an aircraft in the sky, the beam is three or four feet wide, Wysopal said. The light hits all the reflective surfaces in the cockpit of the plane or helicopter, blinding the pilots, who are particularly sensitive to the light when they are flying in the dark with night-vision equipment.
When the pilots are blinded or distracted, they could lose control of the aircraft, Wysopal said. No crashes have been reported because of laser strikes, but pilots have reported eye injuries and headaches.
FBI officials said all types of aircraft have reported laser strikes, including medical, media, commercial and private. If a laser flashes into a Coast Guard rescue helicopter, procedure requires that the pilot turn back to the airport before continuing with the rescue mission.
“This isn't a funny prank,” Bouffard said. “This is something that could kill people.”
A pilot initiative that was launched in Feb.in 12 metropolitan areas across the country helped decrease laser strikes by nearly 20 percent in those areas, FBI officials said.
The national campaign, “Making a Point About Lasers,” will include billboards, public service announcements and social media outreach. For the next 90 days, the FBI will offer an award of up to $10,000 for anyone who provide information leading to an arrest for aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft.
“Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” Bentley said.