Public Service

Law Enforcement Notebook: Proactive Patrolling

By Ernie Stephens | September 1, 2007

OKAY. LET’S SAY YOU’RE AIRBORNE. You’ve warmed up your moving map, cooled down your forward looking infrared (flir) device, and you’re all hyped up for another action-packed airborne patrol.

The only problem is there isn’t squat happening: no chases, no calls for shots fired, no nothing. If it weren’t for that uncomfortable seat you’re strapped into, you would have fallen asleep an hour ago.

What do you do when the radio is quiet and you and your partner have finished discussing the weather, kids, and supervisors? Here are some things I’ve used to stay alert and productive, even when all was quiet on the battle front.


Yeah, I know. Proactive patrol is one of the main reasons you’re up there in the first place. But how much of your time in the air is engaged in patrolling and how much is just burning fuel until the dispatcher sends you someplace?

Sitting at my computer just now, I deleted a long list of stuff to check because I don’t want to insult your intelligence. After all, if you’ve been entrusted to fly the department’s helicopter, you already know what areas and sites need to be checked and what don’t.

The thing about proactive patrol that’s easy to forget, however, is that it should be unpredictable. Just like patrolling in a trusty, four-door Crown Vic, you can’t let the bad guys know exactly when you’re going to be "here" instead of "there."

Remember to mix up your patrol periods, and spend a little time above the areas that rarely need you. The change of scenery is stimulating, and it’s in those "nice" neighborhoods where stolen autos are sometimes dumped and predators often hunt for unsuspecting children.

At night, every school and every car dealership deserves at least one scan through your flir. Where I flew, police vehicle impound lots were always fertile hunting grounds.

For my money, emergency-procedures drills aren’t just for engine failures and electrical fires. They’re also about figuring out what to do if the only pilot on board takes a bullet in his right hand or an unlicensed crewmember has to get the aircraft and an unconscious pilot down on the ground.

The guy I flew with the most when I was a line pilot, Mike Brady, and I used to break the boredom by playing "What If" games. What if something happened to me and Brady (who was not a pilot) had to take over the controls? We decided that he had enough skill to get us down in one piece, but he could maximize our chances if he headed for the nearby air force base. There, he’d have two huge runways and several crash trucks to work with — a good plan to have worked out ahead of time.

What if you took a bullet in your right hand? Have you ever flown for any length of time manipulating the cyclic with your left hand? If you fly single-pilot, that’s a skill worth developing. Trying to land with one hand isn’t something I would recommend, but the exercise is more about giving a simulated injured right hand a break than it is about working without it entirely. (But I’ll tell you, the controls on my beloved MD Helicopters MD-520 are tight enough to give you a reasonable shot at a one-handed landing.)

One game I used to spring on new pilots in the unit was "Where Would You Go?" We would be in an orbit looking for a missing child, or maybe just cruising along, when I would say, "Okay, where would you go if we lost the engine?" Granted, the pilot of a single-engine ship should always have that eventuality in the front of their mind, but playing that game unannounced helps quicken the thought process.

How many times have you been engaged in a chase that led you someplace with which you weren’t familiar? It’s happened to me quite a few times. Many of us have high-dollar mapping gear slaved to a Global Positioning System receiver, but sometimes it’s hard for a two-person crew to watch the bad guys, work the radio, and figure out precisely where they are without scraping paint with a passing Cessna 172.

Try slipping across jurisdictional lines now and then, and learning some prominent landmarks you can use to orient ground units. You probably can’t learn every little street that way, but if you’re able to call out the name of a subdivision or prominent business once or twice during a pursuit, you’ll be ahead of the game.

"Showing the colors" is a term I stole from 19th-century cavalry soldiers, who would remove the protective covers from their flags to formally announce their presence. For our purposes, it simply means flying a slick police helicopter over local tourist attractions, parks, and civic events. Think of it as telling the law-abiding public that you’re nearby and the criminal element that you’re open for business.

When all else fails and you just can’t stay alert, land your ship and consider a short nap. What you think is boredom may be fatigue, and the best cure is sleep!

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