I recently bumped into a few officers that I knew from my days of driving a police car, who asked about life in the aviation section. I was disheartened to hear that they were unaware of the size and location of our helicopter fleet, and even more disturbed to hear that they did not know we operated on a full 24-hour schedule, especially since that has been standard since 1994! How could these people work for the same department as I do, yet be completely unaware of its resources? While we in aviation know it and love it, we forget that unfortunately yes, there are actually those folks out there whose lives do not contain daily doses of it. With current economic strains forcing politicians and bean counters to continually look for places to trim costs, sadly many police aviation units either have been, or can someday find themselves on the budgetary chopping block. It becomes incumbent upon us to make sure the members of our department and associated government offices are fully aware of the capabilities and benefits an aviation section provides.
I’ve heard all the cop sarcasm: “We don’t call Aviation because … their equipment is always broken; they only fly in perfect weather; they never find anyone.” This sarcasm tends to propagate throughout the department and can send the wrong message. The fact is, a helicopter crewed by two sworn police officers as an airborne law enforcement platform provides a combination of speed, agility, vantage point, and technology, all of which are invaluable tools to the patrolman on the ground. It’s easy to see how the expensive technology onboard these aircraft, such as a thermal imager and night vision goggles, can be of importance. But what seems to get overlooked all too often by budget writers and patrolmen alike is the great aid to the basic elements of policing that a helicopter brings, elements which we’ve all learned in our early days at the police academy.
Police presence. Simply put, a roving police car on patrol deters crime. At an altitude of 600 feet, a police helicopter can be easily seen and heard for approximately three miles, projecting “omnipresence” over a much greater area.
Response time. Numerous studies show that the apprehension rate of suspects directly coincides with response time. Traveling at an average speed over 100 mph, a helicopter can oftentimes be first on scene and search a large area quicker than ground units, greatly increasing the chance of capturing a criminal or locating a missing child. Not finding a subject can be equally beneficial by rapidly clearing an area and allowing units to concentrate elsewhere. Many police agencies provide medevac services as part of their public safety role. The obvious benefit from this is sheer speed to the hospital.
Vantage point. Being above a scene can have endless uses, such as search and rescue, helping firefighters fight a wildfire, or giving better situational awareness to ground units trying to keep order during a demonstration or parade. While holding a perimeter, at best a patrol car can surveil two sides of a building. One helicopter crew can see all four sides of that building, the rooftop, and behind any fencing or walls all at the same time, doing the work of multiple patrol cars.
Officer safety. Pursuing fleeing subjects can be dangerous, especially if done in vehicles at high speed. Having a helicopter overhead slows down the pursuit by allowing patrol cars to back off, usually causing the suspect to slow as well. Aviation can give ground units an idea of traffic or dangerous conditions being approached ahead of the chase. Occasionally police aviators have even cautiously landed their aircraft in order to come to the aid of a fellow officer struggling with an arrest subject.
So how do we get these few examples and the many other functions and abilities of our aviation units known to the troops? One-time training of new officers at the police academy is not enough. Most agencies have recurrent in-service training for veteran members.
All aviation units should have an in-service training presentation that includes the “when, why, and how” to call for aviation services. If possible, presentations should include video footage of FLIR captures, news articles highlighting activity, and actual aircraft demos whenever possible. Having officers see the aircraft up close and personal can leave a lasting impression. Unit supervisors should advise upper brass of capabilities, and advise public information bureau of noteworthy accomplishments.
The large price tag associated with operating police helicopters must be justified by their indispensability, and like many things, if you don’t use it, you lose it. We can drop everything and scramble out of the hangar to perform a rescue, find a child, or catch a subject—in a way that only we can—then get back to base and reheat our pizza like it was no big deal. But sometimes we just have to put our modesty aside and be our own biggest fans.