Upon my arrival at the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) exhibition hall in Orlando a couple months ago, I got a big surprise. It was the appearance of a helicopter from an agency I know.
It was move-in day, which is when the exhibitors set up their booths, and the various helicopters that will be on display are wheeled inside. I was there to get the Rotor & Wing booth ready when I saw a helicopter belonging to a department I’m familiar with. I won’t identify the specific agency, or the particular villain in this story, but there isn’t a law enforcement aviator on this planet who hasn’t seen the same thing at least once.
The reason the presence of this particular aircraft and crew surprised me was because for nearly 10 years the commander of that unit had kept the operation bound, gagged, and kept in what amounted to a state of exile. You see, for him, the standard operating procedure could be summed up by a little statue of the “See-No-Evil, Hear-No-Evil, Speak-No-Evil” monkeys he kept on his desk. He felt that the best way to keep his job from being complicated was to see nothing, listen to nothing, and say nothing – and to make sure nobody under him did. “Look,” he once told me. “The less people there are and the less flying they do, the less chances there are of something happening.”
So, for far more years than it should have been, this individual kept the aviation unit off the radar, which included trashing letters of commendation, because those had to be forwarded up the chain; keeping requisitions to a minimum, because that requires writing justifications; and rejecting all invitations to display their aircraft at ALEA, because it draws outside attention.
Most air unit bosses are excellent. They’re motivated to learn, and want to see the operation run properly. But there are a few leaders want to keep a low profile for no other reason than they’re ashamed of how little knowledge they have. They’ve discovered that the way they used to run other units just doesn’t work when it comes to a section as specialized as aviation. So, they slouch down in the back of the classroom, and pray that nobody calls on them to say or do something. The guy who was hamstringing the agency I’m focusing on today may have had some of that in him. But from the conversations I’ve had with him that were borderline confessions of embezzlement, he was just trying to do as little as possible without being caught by his bosses.
The good news is that an incoming chain of command realized that he was dead weight, and drop-kicked him to a more conspicuous assignment where he couldn’t be dead weight anymore. He tendered his resignation papers a few months after that, but not soon enough for me to win the bet I had that said he’d be gone within two pay periods.
Back at the hangar, a new commander had come in, and discovered an aviation unit that had not progressed one step in years. The equipment was outdated, the staff had been woefully neglected, and – worst of all – there was plenty of money on the books that could have fixed all of that years ago, had the bad guy been about the business of running the place properly, or at least willing to delegate tasks to any one of the fine, capable people he had under him.
Things are great at the unit, now. The atmosphere improved overnight. The helicopters received badly needed upgrades, the crews got some things they needed, and they’re in the air catching bad guys and finding lost children the way they’ve been wanting to for the past decade. And yes, they were in attendance at ALEA, along with several high-ranking members of their department who had come to show their full support.
What saddens and angers me is that the agency I’m referring to is not the only one that has been on such a ride. As I talk to my law enforcement aviation buddies across the country, they say they have been through the same ups and downs, or at least know some folks who have. It’s hard to see an otherwise effective unit trying to do their jobs with a concrete-block-of-a-leader chained around their necks. And we all know that bucking the chain of command to get help can be the third rail of a paramilitary organization, right?
Perhaps the lesson to be learned from these cases is that the winds of change can blow in both directions, and often come between the lines of a transfer list – or maybe even general election results, depending upon the level of the problem child. So, I suppose it’s all about riding out the hard times, and hoping the good times will return before the only attractive solutions left are those that can lead to a stretch in the state penitentiary.