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The past two decades brought rapid expansion in airborne policing south of the border, as U.S. law enforcement, politicians, and the paying public saw value in having a friendly eye in the sky. That trend may now be reversing, as recession-weary municipalities struggle with smaller budgets.


February 23, 2010
By Scott jamieson

Topics

The past two decades brought rapid expansion in airborne policing south
of the border, as U.S. law enforcement, politicians, and the paying
public saw value in having a friendly eye in the sky. That trend may
now be reversing, as recession-weary municipalities struggle with
smaller budgets.

Just before Christmas, the affluent community of Colorado Springs put
its two Bell helicopters up for sale at the bargain price of $350,000.
After 10 years of policing the skies of this sprawling city, the
airborne unit fell victim to a brutal choice – should they cut men or
machines to make ends meet? At $500 per flying hour, police helicopters
make an easy target. Similar stories played out in 2009 in Tulsa,
Okla., and Oakland, San Bernardino, and Corona, Calif., among others.
In Tulsa, the cut to air support came despite 30 successful years and
officers who knew the full value of the unit.

Up north, where we were never bathed in the luxury of so many air
support programs, the trend is just the opposite. Gains are slow, yes,
but we are gaining. Among Canadian air patrol units, the news is of
continued financial support, record flying hours, and programs to
replace aging equipment. There’s also talk of adding more programs.

After years and several failed attempts, the Winnipeg Police Service
(WPS) is poised to get its air support unit off the ground. As of press
time it had passed all the required rounds of municipal approval, and
money to buy and outfit a police helicopter was in the books. The last
step was to secure a commitment from the province to fund operating
costs, a decision expected by mid March. Winnipeg, like other Canadian
cities vying for similar programs, knows the value of airborne patrols,
a value that extends far beyond the glamorous world of criminal pursuit
portrayed in such U.S. television shows as COPS. In a brief supporting
the helicopter purchase, the WPS could list a wide range of benefits,
as well as some hard stats from units in Edmonton and Calgary. You can
see the complete brief at www.helicoptersmagazine.com in the web
exclusives section, but the litany includes faster response times, an
apprehension rate above 99 per cent, improved pursuit management and
fewer high-speed pursuits, added deterrence, and better use of
on-the-ground police resources thanks to the helicopter’s “force
multiplier” effect.

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It’s hard to argue with this ROI, and Canadian municipalities fortunate
enough to have such programs are not in the mood to do so. Dave
Saunders, a tactical flight officer with the York Regional Police and
current director of the Canadian branch of the Airborne Law Enforcement
Association (ALEA) goes even further, describing air support as a
cost-effective community tool that any mid-sized Canadian municipality
should have.

“Our society is getting older,” he says in explaining just one key
community role of today’s air support units. “We are seeing more people
with Alzheimer’s – we know it’s a growing issue. More people are going
to go missing, and it’s critical that we contain the perimeter
immediately in such cases. Nothing is more efficient or responds faster
than a patrolling airborne unit.”

While you won’t see these pursuits on COPS, they are becoming the bread
and butter of many airborne units. Rescuing beloved parents or missing
children just as dusk settles also resonates strongly with the public.
So does playing a support role for local paramedics and firefighters.

Seen in this light, prospects for airborne policing in Canada are
brighter than ever. That major cities like Toronto and Montreal are
grossly underserved by air patrols is embarrassing, and should be
rectified soon. But the real air support story in Canada in the coming
decade lies with the growing list of mid-sized cities that straddle the
border between urban Canada and its less forgiving rural landscape,
cities like London, Kitchener or Thunder Bay, Ont., Trois Rivières,
Quebec City or Chicoutimi, Que., Halifax, N.S., Kelowna, B.C., and many
more. Given rugged terrain, harsh climates and vast distances, no tool
better ensures public safety in all its forms than a patrolling
helicopter.

Against that backdrop, Helicopters launches an in-depth series on
Canadian airborne law enforcement. Mike Minnich starts us off in this
issue with a look back at the effort required to get this far. In
coming issues we will look at everything from technology and equipment
trends to training, safety, and success stories. Indeed, our next issue
looks at a success story that straddles that urban/rural interface –
the Durham Regional Police Department. Enjoy the ride.


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