Fighting crime - from 1,000 feet in the air

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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.

A fully equipped police helicopter, like the one Durham and York are sharing, runs about $1.2 million. The annual operating budget for an airborne unit is typically 1 to 1-1/2 percent of a police department's overall operating budget, according to Bell.

Greg Lester, chief helicopter pilot for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Ottawa, acknowledges that hard data to justify the cost of a helicopter can be elusive. And even with a helicopter, he adds, "You will not cure the problem of fresh pursuits."

But like a number of peace officers, he's impressed with how persuasive a hovering helicopter, spotlight blazing, can be in getting a fleeing suspect to surrender to the cops on the ground. "If you put a light on 'em, they'll pull over."

When your eyes are in the sky, though, it can be hard to keep your ear to the ground.

Having a helicopter patrol proactively in potential trouble spots fits part of the community policing agenda that has been adopted in so many jurisdictions.

But airborne law enforcement "goes away from having a guy rattling doorknobs and talking with people" on foot patrol, Lester says. In Calgary, Sergeant Blais gets 80 to 90 citizen complaints, usually about the 'copter's noise or bright lights, every year. When possible, he tries to have the pilot on duty at the time respond to the complaint to explain why the helicopter was there.

"We tell people when they've seen the 'copter to lock their doors, turn on their lights, and don't be afraid to look out their windows, because often they help us catch the one we're looking for. They'll call and say, 'I think the guy you're looking for is trying to break into my garden shed,' or something like that."

Julian Roberts, a criminologist at the University of Ottawa, says he sees use of helicopters as primarily an "internal budget allocation." He adds, though, "If police were arguing for helicopters instead of cruisers, I'd oppose that. The closer the police are to the public, the better."

Training offered

Nonetheless, "law enforcement agencies around the world are realizing the possibilities of using helicopters," says Staff Sgt. Tom Hill of the RCMP in Montreal, secretary of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association. ALEA offers training for individual police aviators who want to help set up air units for the agencies in which they serve. "We've got members from Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Israel."

Mel Pollock, manager of civil government marketing for Bell in Fort Worth, concurs: "Many forces are beginning to discover the helicopter." Former Eastern-bloc countries like Poland and Hungary are big among Bell's international customers, as are Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, and China. Latin America is another growth market for Bell, as police turn to copters to help with drug interdiction and terrorism.

Taste of the airborne

In the US, a program to make "excess" military helicopters available to civilian law enforcement has given many agencies a taste of airborne policing they might not otherwise have had. Bell officials figure they have picked up some 90 new customers among these agencies, as they turn to Bell to supplement or eventually replace the craft they have received from the military.

The clearest findings of the last big wave of studies of airborne law enforcement, university researcher Whitehead says, suggest that helicopters do make a difference in deterring observable outdoor crimes like car theft and break-ins - both residential and commercial. He doesn't expect his study to sway those with their minds already made up, but just to be able to estimate the economic value of crime deterred by the helicopter - as he expects to be able to do - will represent "a major leap forward."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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