Toronto's Chopper Foes

Interest group trying to keep helicopters out of city
James Careless
July 09, 2007
By James Careless
By James Careless

206-torontoAlthough I haven’t lived in Toronto for years, I am still a Torontonian born and bred. Even today, I bear the attitudes and ego that so mark me to other Canadians.

But none of my Toronto traits can explain to me why any resident would oppose the use of police helicopters to find missing persons, conduct car chases safely and improve officer safety. Yet this is precisely what a group called ‘Stop The Choppers’ is trying to do.

Specifically, it opposes the efforts of the non-profit group RASAR (Regional Air Support and Rescue) who would like to fundraise and then donate three Eurocopter EC-120 helicopters to first responders in the Golden Horseshoe, with one of these units being donated directly to the Toronto Police Service for its exclusive use. Stop the Choppers’ apparent spokesperson is Helen Armstrong, given that she’s the contact on the group's website. I e-mailed Armstrong asking for an interview. “I am sorry but I don’t have time at the moment,” she replied, directing me to to provide her group’s case.

Fair enough: The site does make the group’s position crystal clear. “Stop the Choppers is very opposed to any use of helicopters for policing in Toronto,” said Armstrong in a deputation to the City of Toronto’s joint Budget Committee/Policy and Finance Committee meeting on February 23, 2001. “Police statistics show that crime in this city is at a 25-year low. We therefore can’t justify spending money on helicopters. Toronto does not need night-time military style surveillance. We are not Bosnia, or even Los Angeles. Our research shows that in an emergency, helicopters can be borrowed from the OPP or RCMP, usually for free.”

To bolster her case against police choppers, Armstrong cites a 2001 City of Toronto report on the Toronto Police Service’s six-month helicopter trial that ended on January 31 of that year. In a NOW Magazine article published in October 2002 she wrote, “it bears repeating that city auditor Jeff Griffiths concluded in his March 2001 report that the copter neither reduced crime nor helped with high-speed police chases – the whole raison d’être behind the copter project in the first place.” So I downloaded the “The Evaluation of the Air Support Unit Pilot Project,” submitted by city auditor Jeffrey Griffiths, from the website. I soon discovered that it did not support Armstrong’s representations of the report's conclusions.

What Griffiths actually wrote was: “We can conclude from our evaluation that the helicopter did make a positive contribution at many of the calls it attended. However, it was not possible to determine if the benefits provided by the helicopter outweighed its cost.” By cost, Griffiths means the “approximately $2 million to $3 million” needed to buy the helicopter, plus the funds to maintain it.

This said, he has no doubt that the helicopter helped Toronto police do their jobs. For instance, “A faster response time results in the helicopter being first on the scene more often,” Griffiths wrote. “Due to the speed of the helicopter in getting to the scene there is more likelihood that the crime may still be in progress and the suspects still at the scene or in the immediate vicinity. This, together with the aerial perspective of the helicopter, increases the probability of locating and maintaining surveillance of the suspects and increases the likelihood of apprehension by police ground units.”

So what happened during the six-month helicopter trial in Toronto? “During the pilot project, the average response time for the helicopter was 3.9 minutes,” wrote Griffiths. “According to the Toronto Police Service ‘2000 Environmental Scan,’ the average response time for a police car in Toronto is 8 minutes.”

Beyond helping police respond to calls quicker, Griffiths’ report said the helicopter helped save time and money. “Of the 40 officers interviewed, half reported that time was saved as a result of the support provided by the helicopter,” he wrote. “The estimates ranged from 2 to 600 hours for search-and-rescue activities and from 1 to 150 hours at other types of events.”

He added: “To determine the magnitude of potential officer time saved during the pilot project, we extended these estimates to all 789 events that the helicopter attended. This extrapolation resulted in a best-case estimate of 3,200 police officer hours being saved. In dollar terms, the value added by the helicopter based on the estimated 3,200 hours saved during the pilot project is approximately $160, 000.”

Most strikingly, Griffiths included testimonials to demonstrate how the helicopter had made a difference during its six-month trial. “Last week an elderly man went missing near the Guild,” said one respondent. “He used to live around the Scarborough Bluffs. It was the middle of the night. The helicopter covered an area within five minutes (the coast area) that it would have taken 20 men working a whole shift to do.”

“I was helping my 13-year-old son doing his Community flyers on Vaughan,” said another respondent. “On and about Vaughan/Cherrywood, on the cement sidewalk there was a man running after a female, caught up with her, knocked her down and started beating her. As onlookers rushed to the scene, the young man was showing off his knife. My neighbour called the police on his cell. In about two minutes the air patrol was there with their spotlight. The main point is that the helicopter does work. The cop came later and [was] heading for the wrong direction.”

In summary, the 2001 City Auditor’s Report cited by Stop the Choppers does not support the group’s opposition to a police helicopter. Instead, the only real doubt Griffiths raised was whether the city could justify the expense at a time when money was scarce.

“It can be argued that the cost of the helicopter, at approximately $2 million to $3 million, is marginal relative to the Toronto Police Service 2000 operating budget of over $557 million,” he wrote. “However, in absolute dollars, the cost of the helicopter is a significant expenditure that must be considered in the context of competing priorities within both the city and the Toronto Police Service, and at a time when continued funding for some programs is being carefully scrutinized.”

Fair enough; cash was tight and remains tight in Toronto. This is why RASAR wants to donate the aircraft and servicing to the city. “There’s no room in the city budget to spend $2 million on an EC-120 and $1 million annually to operate it,” says RASAR president and CEO Trevor Harness, a former police officer and pilot who works as a flight controller for the province of Ontario’s air ambulance program. “That’s why RASAR wants to use private donations to help out; as has already been done by citizens in Edmonton and Calgary.”

Stop the Choppers objects to privately-funded helicopters as being potential pawns of the corporations who help fund them. So does Globe and Mail columnist Heather Mallick. In a November 12, 2005 article, “Why I Hate Police Helicopters,” Mallick attacks the notion of privately-funded cop choppers. In cities where such schemes have been allowed, she wrote, “the list of corporations that have donated money to this dreadful scheme include banks, drugstores, giant American chains and law firms that already keep records on your money, your prescriptions, your will and your marriage.”

Stop the Choppers has posted a list of donors to the 2000/2001 Toronto Police Service helicopter trial. In their ranks are such shadowy characters as army, sea and air cadet units, Crime Stoppers, Toronto Sun cartoonist Andy Donato, the five major Canadian banks and Canada Trust, the CAA, Chapters, Home Depot, Shoppers Drug Mart, Molson's and Zellers.

The results from 1,001 Torontonians surveyed by Environics Research in January 2001 are cited by Griffiths in his report. When asked, “Do you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose the use of helicopters by the Toronto Police Service?" the majority of residents (87%) were supportive and more than half (53%) of those who were supportive expressed strong support,” Griffiths wrote.

“Residents were subsequently asked whether or not they would support the use of helicopters by the Toronto Police Service “at a cost of approximately $3 million per year?” Even with the cost of $3 million attached to the helicopter project, the level of support continued to be a majority in support of the initiative (68%).”

But despite the fact that the majority of Torontonians surveyed are willing to pay for a police helicopter, and despite the fact that citizen-funded helicopters are a publicly-prized reality in Edmonton and Calgary, a group calling itself ‘Stop the Choppers’ is trying to keep a police helicopter out of Toronto’s skies!


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