By Ernie Stephens | November 1, 2007
AS SOME OF YOU MAY KNOW, I finally retired after 27 years of police service. I could spend an entire column talking about how strange the transition from part-time writer and full-time pilot to the reverse has been, but that will have to wait for another day. I bring it up now because of something that’s been happening a lot since I traded my regular badge for one that says "retired."
You see, now that I’m out of the department’s sphere of control, I’m privy to a lot of the inside scoop that decorum and the chain of command blocked me from before. Case in point: On a recent weekend, I ran into a high-ranking official under whom I once served. After exchanging pleasantries, I told him how sorry I was that he had retired a couple of years ago.
"You know, the guys at the hangar really appreciated everything you did back when you were our bureau chief," I said with the utmost sincerity. "You really looked out for us."
He thanked me for the compliment, then said, "Well, I wish I could have done more, but nobody else [at headquarters] seemed to care."
He basically said that no matter how much he tried, he just couldn’t get the needs of the helicopter unit on the agenda of higher police administrators, including the chief. This was not news to me, as I was painfully aware of how the support we had enjoyed since the inception of the unit had eroded to the point where the sign above the hangar door should have read, "What Aviation Section?"
Sure, I understand that the helicopters aren’t the only thing on the logistical radar. But even the retired lieutenant colonel I was talking to agreed that while he was there, we were unnecessarily understaffed, under-equipped and underutilized. But sadly-and just as I had expected back then-when he retired, aviation was completely without a voice at headquarters. Entire shifts were dropped soon after that. In fact, patrol officers would come over the radio and say things such as, "I know it’s a waste, because they never have anyone working anymore, but could you see if the helicopter is available?"
As I travel around the country meeting our readers, I hear more and more stories like mine: One day the helicopter unit is well-loved, but as transfers in and out of the corner offices occur, support for aviation tends to decrease more often than increase.
So what’s going on? Even in departments where funding doesn’t seem to be a big issue, I’m hearing of administrators ho-humming police aviation. What is it that’s causing many chiefs and sheriffs to almost forget they have a helicopter, and how much bang for the buck they get when it’s up in the air looking for a fleeing felon, or putting the light down on a lone deputy with four stopped in a stolen car?
A good friend of mine, who started with his agency before dirt got dirty, has a theory: "The only thing those guys care about is making their own lives easy," he said of some of his commanders. "If it’s inconvenient to do something, they won’t do it. Never mind if it’s the right thing to do!"
Even though he and I have had that conversation many times over the past six or seven years, which was when we both began noticing the change in mentality at the upper levels, I wondered if this might hold the answer to why so many helicopter units aren’t being properly fed and watered.
Could it be that since aviation units are inherently more difficult to manage than any other police unit, more and more leaders simply choose to ignore them because that’s easier? (I’ve ignored cleaning up my basement for the same reason!) Is it possible that old helicopters are continually patched up because it’s easier than going through the stomach-churning process of trying to get new ones? Heck, I once had a commander tell me to stop asking for more people. The only reason he gave was that more officers meant more evaluations to write and more problems to tend to.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m stumped. With all of the great things a police helicopter and crew can accomplish, can anyone give me a reasonable explanation for why so many flight departments are seeing diminished support from on high? Could it be things aren’t that bad at all, and I’m just hearing the complaints of a vocal minority, including me? After all, there is some good news out there. For instance, Capt. Steve Pelto is the proud commander of a new air unit in Bryan County, Okla. Lt. Michael Elkins reports that Columbus, Ohio will break ground on a bigger hangar soon. And those hard-chargers in Phoenix recently upgraded their entire helicopter fleet to a mix of Eurocopters and AgustaWestlands.
How about this: Send me your observations on the level of support your agency seems to be getting from its administrators. You don’t have to say who you’re with. Just let me know what you’re sensing at your place, and I’ll share the overall results in a future column.
You can reach me at email@example.com.