By Ernie Stephens | March 1, 2008
PUBLIC SERVICE | POLICE
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I direct your attention Rotor & Wing’s November 2007 issue, page 56, where you will find my views on the direction administrative support for law enforcement aviation is headed.
I wrote that the prevailing attitude toward helicopter units, at least from what I could tell, has gone from positive to lukewarm (if not cold), even where money is plentiful. I closed by inviting you, the readers, to tell me if your agency is being properly supported and if not, why. I promised to report your views, so buckle up. Here are the results.
With the exception of one reader, all of the 30 or so comments I received emphatically verified a dramatic decrease in upper-level support for police helicopter operations over the past 5 – 10 years. (Understandably, each respondent asked — if not begged — to remain anonymous.)
"I was glad to know we are not alone," wrote one reader. "In my opinion, the brass sees a pilot as an overpaid, under-used police officer who gets to do a very easy job. It’s hard to describe to a non-aviator the time, dedication and commitment a pilot brings to the table… I cannot agree more with your statement concerning the brass and their habit of choosing to ignore the problem because it’s easier."
The commander of another unit told me that their operating funds have been completely cut off, which would lead one to believe that money was the issue. But he disputed that idea, saying that he and his staff identified a source of funds that could keep them flying, even if just for another couple of months. Their suggestions, however, were met with a silence to which many other readers said they fall victim.
"They’re just not listening to us," said one frustrated county pilot. He reported that he and his co-workers had come up with ways to make their unit more effective. Knowing that money was a hot topic, they emphasized that they wouldn’t need any additional funds. The response from upstairs was zero: not a yes, not a no, not even a "we’ll see." In fact, when the unit members checked on the status of their memo, nobody knew what they were talking about. Re-submissions disappeared into the same black — or should I say blue — hole. "That never used to happen," said the reader.
One of the first phone calls I received was from a tactical flight officer with a state police agency. "You hit the nail on the head," he told me. "Some [high-ranking officials] don’t care whether we’ll be around. I even think they want us to die out." He also blamed a high turnover in commanders for their lack of support, adding to suspicions that some officials will never really run the unit, because by the time they’ve gotten past the deer-in-the-headlights mode of commanding such a complicated division, they’re off to another assignment.
The sole exception to the negative replies came from a reader who reported that everything in his aviation unit was great. He said they’re allowed to conduct proactive patrols, make public appearances and train pretty much whenever they want to. He added that they receive nothing but praise from their bosses. But here’s the catch. He said that his current, pro-aviation commander is due to leave soon, and the heir apparent has no love for flight operations. In other words, rpms may be in the green now, but he expects the throttle will be rolled off on them in five, four, three, two, one.
By the way, changes in leadership were mentioned by several readers, who said commanders in their agencies are rotated on a regular schedule, regardless of their aptitude. Consequently, a unit could get someone who is really pro-aviation, someone who flat out doesn’t like helicopters, or someone who’s just keeping the chair warm. (I had a lieutenant who was both of the last two, and my old unit still hasn’t recovered.)
What the world of airborne law enforcement needs are a few more administrators like Sheriff Newell Normand of Jefferson Parish, La. While taking delivery of a new Bell 407 at the 2006 Airborne Law Enforcement Assn (ALEA) conference, Normand, who was the chief deputy and financial officer at the time, said, "I haven’t been a big advocate of air support from the financial side. In fact, if I had been the sheriff, I would have gotten rid of it years ago."
But after seeing that unit’s contribution during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he changed his mind. "I’m a believer in them, now," he said just before announcing that he was looking to fund at least two more helicopters, including a twin-engine Bell. He saw that helicopters were worth every dime it took to fly them.
Short of cloning him, what can be done about the trend of poor support from the big bosses?
The best guess of all of the respondents was to educate the top brass. I believe the best way to do that is through the managerial training programs offered by ALEA, many of which are free. I suppose the trick is to wait until ALEA’s conference is held someplace a higher-up wants to visit. This training may not make them drink, but at least it will get him near the water.