Fighting crime - from 1,000 feet in the air
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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