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Fighting crime - from 1,000 feet in the air

By Ruth WalkerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 17, 1999


In the evening sky over a subdivision outside Toronto, we're circling in a Bell JetRanger helicopter. Below is a man who allegedly violated a court order earlier by leaving flowers on the seat of his former wife's car.

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"Leaving flowers is an arrestable offense?" one of the men in the helicopter asks.

But the suspect has reportedly been drinking, and has a history of drunken driving and evading arrest. And there is, after all, the restraining order.

When the call from the ex-wife came in, we arrived at the scene almost instantly. Now, the suspect is cornered in his house, even if he doesn't realize it. Were he to slip out the door, Constable Todd Petzold's infrared camera would pick up his body heat as a white splotch.

Police forces around the world are discovering the patrol helicopter as a powerful tool for extending the speed and reach of the law - and avoiding dangerous high-speed car chases.

But the helicopter is also expensive equipment that puts the police 1,000 feet above the action when law enforcement is rediscovering the importance of pounding the pavement and getting to know neighborhoods.

Advocates of the helicopter are untroubled by this. They just know that with the helicopter, they get their guy: He can run, but he can't hide.

"They'll want to talk with him, maybe arrest him," says Constable Petzold of the ex-husband, after three squad cars arrive and patrolmen surround the house.

As our civilian pilot flies us back to the Oshawa Municipal Airport, Petzold adds, "But you'd have to have a crystal ball to know what's going to happen with him - is he going to get violent?"

Many experts say that having police taking calls like this seriously is exactly what is needed to stop violence against women. But his comment implicitly acknowledges how hard it is to know whether such a police response is an overreaction.

Meanwhile, in Calgary, Alberta, Sgt. Garth Blais says of the helicopter unit he commands, "There's no doubt it saves lives and gets bad guys off the street. "

But not everyone is so sure. The effectiveness, cost and otherwise, of airborne law enforcement has not been much researched. Most studies that do exist date back to the late 1960s. You could drive a patrol wagon through their methodological gaps, according to Paul Whitehead, a criminologist at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ont. He has just recently begun a new study - said to be unique in North America - of the helicopters' effectiveness in law enforcement.

PROVINCIAL police agencies here have long used helicopters for public-safety tasks, such as searching for missing persons. But not until the mid-1990s did Canada have even one fulltime helicopter unit attached to a city police force - the unit Sergeant Blais commands.

Now several jurisdictions across the country are exploring the possibility of air units, including the regional municipalities of Durham and York, two large local government districts outside Toronto, which are sharing a single JetRanger for a six-month trial that began June 15.

It's not that crime is soaring here. Nationwide, major crime rates have fallen in the past seven years, to the lowest level in nearly 20 years, according to Statistics Canada.

But over the past year, Toronto has experienced a tragic string of accidents in which innocent bystanders were killed by vehicles fleeing the police. These have focused new attention on longstanding efforts by the city's Police Services Board to test out a helicopter.

Police efforts to fund a six-month trial with corporate donations were grounded last month by the city council, in the face of strong opposition from the police union, and also from the city's finance chief, who argues that Toronto's finest already have too many expensive toys.