Public Service, Regulatory

The $1.5 Million Police Car

By Staff Writer | July 1, 2004
Send Feedback


In times of tight budgets, buying and maintaining a multi-million-dollar law enforcement helicopter requires strong justification and creative thinking.


By Sgt. Ernie Stephens
Chief Pilot, Prince George’s County (Md.)
Police Department.

About a year ago, the THEN-head of my agency ordered that public address systems be installed on both of our MD-520N police helicopters. Like a good sergeant, I hopped right on it. Costs were researched and the estimates sent to our financial officer for approval. Like the thunder that follows lightning, a phone call was hot on the heels of that requisition. After a few pleasantries came the question that I hear over and over as the chief pilot of a small, four-year-old police helicopter unit: “It’s going to cost how much!?”


In an environment dominated by the day-to-day purchase of $60 badges, $400 side arms, and $50 uniform trousers, paying $22,000 to install PA systems in two aircraft is an eye-opening, coffee-spraying, jaw-dropping event in the life of an uninitiated financial administrator. After all, she could buy a fully equipped police car for that price.

Unlike corporate aviation companies, police departments are not inherently familiar with buying and maintaining aircraft, at least not in the beginning. They are shocked by the cost of Nomex flight suits. The sticker price of a modest twin-engine helicopter stuns them.

The concept of aviation law enforcement is best presented gradually, so that police administrators can ease into the idea of a $1.5-million police car. To move them along any faster is not good for their delicate internal organs.

Management’s initiation into financially supporting an aviation unit should begin when the idea of buying an aircraft first presents itself. This is elementary in concept, but tricky in practice. It’s a two-edged sword: say too little—the check-writers will be ill prepared. But say too much—and they will be gasping for air. Strike the right balance, and they will see that the benefits of aircraft can justify the cost of acquisition and maintenance. It is inside of this can of worms that the word “justification” is found.

In the corporate world, justifying the purchase of an aircraft has been reduced to several formulas, depending upon the operation. Compute the hourly wage of the top executives multiplied by the amount of time saved by not flying on commercial airlines, plus the savings in airline tickets, then factor in a few other things, such as operating costs, depreciation, and personnel, and the mathematical likelihood that the aircraft will or will not be profitable becomes evident. However, as sound as these calculations may be, they simply don’t work in police aviation.

For a law enforcement agency, justifying the acquisition of aircraft is less concrete. There are no crunchable numbers to prove that dollars spent will yield a profit, primarily because airborne law enforcement is not a moneymaking venture. For the police, “profit” is a safe community, which does not easily lend itself to bottom-line accounting. Return on investment when a $2-million police helicopter finds a lost five-year-old on a freezing cold night is impossible to plot on a graph.

One figure that has been successfully used to justify police helicopter units is the “Force Multiplier” effect. An airborne flight crew can see an area that would take 15-30 officers on the ground to view. In essence, you get the viewing capabilities of many officers for the price of putting two in the air. The overall dollar advantage may still be elusive. But then again, we’re talking about public safety as opposed to profit margins. Seeing to the safety of citizens isn’t easily quantified in nickels and dimes.

Once the aircraft arrive at the hangar, the excitement begins! The pilots and helicopters will be on their honeymoon, while the department’s financial officers are getting their first set of bills from the wedding! Hangar space, insurance, support personnel, and dozens of other incidentals now begin to tap the resources of the agency’s books. It won’t be long before the onslaught of $200 refuelings, $2,000 replacement components, and $20,000 compressor overhauls blast their way onto the ledger, like bugs on a windscreen. If the check-writers were not adequately prepared for stacks of four and five-digit invoices, things will get very ugly, very quickly.

In an effort to avoid the “$1,000 here and $5,000 there” world of maintenance, my department contracts with West Chester, Pa.-based Keystone Helicopter to perform maintenance on our two aircraft. The contract fee includes parts and labor for projected routine maintenance, plus associated labor costs. Once a month, the contractor presents the county with an itemized bill. I review the bill to verify that it is accurate, then forward it to headquarters for payment out of an annual budget. Additional repairs, equipment, and upgrades are requisitioned separately, and must be approved item by item. Cost overruns, which are common in aviation, are a cardinal sin, so the annual budget serves as a financial brick wall. Attempt to go over that wall and the administrators will release the hounds.

In California, Newport Beach Police Lt. Bob Oakley commands Airborne Law Enforcement Services. This is a corporation jointly operated by the Costa Mesa and Newport Beach police departments and headed by a board of directors. It took over as the aviation arm for the two cities in 1996 and has proven to be more efficient and stress-free than the system that had been in place for the first 26 years of their aviation units’ history.

Every three years, Oakley develops a budget and submits it to the board of directors, which consists of representatives from both jurisdictions. Once the budget is approved, the board requests the money from the two cities. Oakley then uses the funds to operate and maintain their three fully equipped Eurocopter EC120 helicopters. Any excess money at the end of one year is carried over into the following year. At the end of the three-year cycle, any extra money is dumped into a fund that can be used for special needs, or to offset unexpected shortfalls in a subsequent budget period.

According to Oakley, the best part of their system is that the board members are permanent—or at least more permanent than the elected officials and police administrators from the two cities. “It’s easier for me to get approval for spending, because the board is already very familiar with the cost of aviation.” Consequently, Oakley does not have to go through lengthy explanations as to why something is needed, or why the price tag is so high. They are very well versed in aviation matters, as opposed to elected officials, who have neither the interest nor time in office to become aeronautical experts. “We run it like a business,” he said. “We even contract services to the Santa Ana Police Department, and lease hangar space to the Orange County Sheriff’s helicopters.” The operation’s unique system results in significant savings to each of the agencies, and is an extremely efficient way to run an aviation unit.

The police departments in St. Louis County and the City of St. Louis, Mo. are working out a similar merger of assets that will reduce operating costs while increasing surveillance capabilities, according to Lt. Kurt Frisz, St. Louis County Police aviation unit commander. Currently, the two separate units can have helicopters in the air about 11 percent of the time over the city and 23 percent of the time over the county. The merged operations will allow coverage over the entire region an estimated 64 percent of the time. They will also eliminate a mixed fleet of MD-500Es and ex-military OH-6As and an OH-58C, further reducing maintenance costs.

Capt. Kenneth O’Brien, Philadelphia Police Department Aviation Section commander, said his unit uses a system in which they submit a projected annual budget to support their two Bell 206-L Jet Rangers and the two civilian pilots who fly them. “Our money comes from a general city budget,” he said. “When invoices come in from our maintenance provider, I verify that the work was done, then send it to be paid.” As with many police agencies operating on a tight budget, O’Brien’s helicopters are sometimes eyed for budget cuts. “The city is thinking about taking one of the helicopters,” he reports. “I can’t do with less than two.”

Further south, Jay Diggs, director of operations for the Maryland State Police Aviation Div., has an easier time funding the agency’s dozen Eurocopter Dauphin AS365N medevac helicopters and three fixed-wing aircraft. “We get $5.50 annually from every Maryland license registration fee,” he said. “It accounts for 80 percent of our operating budget. The Maryland legislature put that in.” This doesn’t completely free Diggs, who is a retired state police sergeant, from budgeting headaches. But the $2.2 million that the license registration fee generates makes things easier.

Jay Paschke, director and chief helicopter pilot for the Fort Worth (Texas) Police Department, provides his agency with a projected cost of operation for each fiscal year. Based upon their trust in him and his figures, the agency sets aside that amount of money to maintain their two Bell 206-B Jet Rangers. As maintenance issues arise, the funds are released. “The system is very, very good here,” he said. If an unforeseen problem can’t be covered in that budget allotment, Paschke fills out a specific requisition and additional funds are usually provided without a problem. “They understand that things are expensive,” Paschke said. “They trust me to spend wisely.”

Grant money can be a huge help to agencies interested in starting, expanding, or maintaining a helicopter unit. It was a Department of Justice grant that paid for the two helicopters that my agency bought in the summer of 2000. Homeland security money has also been made available for certain law enforcement initiatives and could eliminate much of the red ink associated with funding an aviation operation. The paperwork can be daunting, but the rewards are sizable. A large grant can lift the fiscal burden from the shoulders of budget administrators.

Funding a police aviation unit can be a very frustrating venture. Financial managers do not speak the language, nor do they understand the regulations, liability issues, and safety factors that drive the high cost of supporting airborne law enforcement. When hard times come around, governments gravitate toward the biggest consumer of tax dollars, which invariably will be the aviation unit. Without being able to quantify the number of lives saved and property protected, justifying the unit’s high operating costs becomes troublesome.

In 1996, the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. lost their helicopters due to heavy budget cuts. Their trio of MD-500s and five surplus Bell OH-58s, plus support equipment, were sold off and the crews transferred to other duties. Part of the justification was that airborne support could come from the U.S. Park Police, which (at the time) operated a pair of Bell 206-Bs from their base in the city. The Park Police receives their budget from the Interior Dept. and are responsible for the vast amounts of government parklands in the area, as well as medevac services. They are also the primary air support unit for Secret Service agents protecting the president. Without a helicopter of their own, Metropolitan Police officers sometimes had to wait in line to use the Park Police aircraft. Fortunately, in 2001, conventional wisdom prevailed and the Metropolitan Police got back into the air when they took delivery of a Eurocopter AS350. A second ship was scheduled to follow, but continued budget concerns have put that acquisition on hold.

Good Statistics
The key to saving an aviation program, while not 100-percent foolproof, seems to be good statistics. Flight crews across the country have a better chance of saving their helicopter units when they can show how many missing people they have located, or how many fleeing felons they have captured. As mentioned earlier, there is no matrix that shows how many good deeds per flight hour are required to make a helicopter unit solvent, so crews must remain hungry for every good public safety statistic they can safely and honestly generate.

Dovetailed into creating an impressive list of accomplishments is the need to advertise. A contract with a Madison Avenue ad agency may be overdoing it, but every chance to let the world know about the unit’s worth should be seized. If the unit has a PR office, give them a call. They can feed the media a story or two on how the helicopter located a lost Alzheimer’s sufferer, or tracked down one of the area’s Ten Most Wanted. Participation in any homeland security operation is a points-winner, too.

Operating a police helicopter section, regardless of its size, is a vitally important mission. Unfortunately, it is also a very expensive one.

Flight crews can best protect their programs by getting the most use out of their ships. Pilots need to bring their ships and crew back in one piece, and crewmembers need to generate impressive statistics. The unit as a whole must constantly sell their worth to the administrators, financial managers, politicians, and the public. This will make it harder for the budget axe to visit the hangar—and cut a viable public safety tool.

Receive the latest rotorcraft news right to your inbox