Safety & Training
Editorial: Fall 07
By Richard Purser
Nay-sayers have their say Some oppose police copters – even in Calgary
By Richard Purser
This magazine has faithfully followed the progress of Canada’s first municipal police helicopter operation, which it fell to the Calgary Police Service (CPS) to introduce. The first CPS helicopter entered service 12 years ago this summer, dubbed HAWC1 – the initials stand for Helicopter Air Watch for Community Safety. There is now a second machine, HAWC2, enabling at least one helicopter to be available for duty at all times.
The successes of the CPS Air Services Unit, now safely into its second decade, have been well chronicled in these pages, and the operation enjoys wide support – moral and financial – from the Calgary public.
That’s where this writer happens to have been living since 1980, so I vividly remember the night in October 1993 that set in motion the procurement of helicopters for Calgary’s police. Const. Rick Sonnenberg was run down and killed by a stolen car being pursued by police and driven by a young thug down the north-south freeway that cuts through town. The killing shocked the community. Few murder victims are widely remembered after so many years, but Sonnenberg’s name is still remembered by all Calgarians who had reached the age of consciousness at the time of his death. To this day, flowers bedeck the memorial site on the embankment adjacent to the murder scene.
The immediate goal of the campaign for police helicopters was to move police pursuit of vehicles to the safer realm of the air, but of course the HAWC helicopters have made themselves useful in many ways.
Still, there are always nay-sayers, and we have a few in Calgary. Among them is a local writer, Kevin Brooker, whose musings appear frequently on the Calgary Herald’s op-ed page. In a July opinion column headlined “The HAWCs – noisy, costly, and intrusive” Brooker insisted:
“I know for a fact that many of my fellow citizens feel exactly as I do about cop choppers: They’re a warrantless intrusion on the peace whose benefits are outweighed by their harm.”
Brooker lives in the central city, where he says the HAWCs’ “irritating whomp” is a persistent feature of too many nights. But his major objection, one that he says is shared by many of the people he has spoken with, “is the symbolic one. Police departments publicly tend to pooh-pooh the Big Brother connotations so readily visible in aerial surveillance, but I believe they are both real and corrosive to a truly orderly society.”
Brooker says he was personally targeted by HAWC1 on three occasions in its first decade of operation, once “having the spotlight trained on me for an uncomfortable minute or more” while crossing a
pedestrian bridge at night.
Yes, that sounds uncomfortable. Maybe I would have some agreement with him if I had had such an experience. But I don’t live in the central city, and in fact do my best to avoid it because it is infested with the type of people who no doubt were the real target of that spotlight that so uncomfortably fell on Brooker.
From my place on a height overlooking the central city (from a comfortable distance), often on a summer night when my window is open, I hear the soft whirr of HAWC circling high overhead, and actually find it rather reassuring. It has never descended in my neighbourhood to the point of the whirr becoming an “irritating whomp.”
Another writer in the Calgary Herald, this time one its own reporters, Valerie Fortney, weighed in a couple of months after Brooker’s opus. She had also had a noisy encounter, when HAWC came down and close over her own place at 5 am, going after a trio of young men who had
been breaking into neighbourhood garages.
Fortney complained to CPS that morning – September 13 – and was told by Const. Troy Rudy, an Air Services Unit tactical flight officer, that hers was only the sixth official complaint that CPS has received about the helicopters this year!
There is heavy vandalism of cars at night in my own building’s parking lot. I wouldn’t mind seeing HAWC hovering overhead occasionally, Night Sun blazing, especially if it helped catch the miscreants – which apparently it failed to do in the case cited by Fortney.
So complaints are few – official ones, anyway. Maybe a lot of quiet griping goes on among the people Brooker speaks with, but not among the people I speak with – and perhaps not among the people Fortney speaks with, either.
She writes that she was prepared to be angry but wasn’t anymore after speaking with Rudy, who had been a police school classmate of Sonnenberg. She closed her article with these words:
“Later, I bump into several neighbours, all of whom were targets of the busy thieves. On this day at least, I don’t feel so bad about being jolted awake in the middle of the night.”