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By Sgt. Ernie Stephens | April 1, 2006
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Three Stripes, You're Out

Just a few weeks ago, one of my newest pilots was promoted to sergeant and transferred back to a patrol station. To Dave's credit, he didn't kick and scream, but he certainly mumbled a variety of words that I can't spell, let alone print here. As for me, I was banging my head on the desk trying to figure out why it was necessary to banish a valuable pilot to District 3 patrol.

My department's policy has generally been to keep officers in place through the rank of corporal. Once an officer passes the promotion process for sergeant, however, he or she traditionally is transferred out of specialty units (i.e.; Homicide, SWAT, etc.) and unceremoniously dumped into a patrol supervisor's spot. Those already assigned to patrol duties when they make sergeant generally remain there.


The logic behind sending a brand-new sergeant back to the road does have a certain amount of merit. It is there, the "entry level" supervisor's slot, that you learn the most about leadership in the shortest amount of time, due mostly to number of young, inexperienced officers there. Those kinds of lessons aren't guaranteed with the hand-picked veterans found in most aviation units.

This is the problem many law enforcement aviators have: Get promoted and leave the aviation unit, or keep flying and forgo career advancement? Factor in a higher rank equaling a higher retirement salary and the situation gets even muddier. Of course, there is the possibility of getting promoted and returning to flying when a spot in that pay grade opens up, but that could take forever in some units.

From an aviation manager's standpoint, keeping a pilot after he or she has been promoted is a no-brainer. In the case of Dave, I figure the department has about $60,000 invested in his training. (Had he not been my newest pilot, it would have been more.) He probably had $40,000 of his own money invested in flying. So we end up with $100,000 worth of pilot warming the seat of a patrol car.

Then there is the time issue. Of the 1,500 sworn officers in my department, there are no others who possess a commercial rotorcraft pilot's license, or any kind of FAA pilot's license, for that matter. In other words, there isn't anyone on the horizon who could take Dave's place anytime within the next two years, at the soonest. (And even if a qualified pilot were to show up in our academy, he would have to spend at least two years in patrol before he could be considered for a specialty unit.)

Finally, there's the loss of experience, which one can only get by doing the job. Being a police pilot can only be learned one way: by being a police pilot.

All of this isn't new. Every public-service aviation unit that uses sworn pilots has faced it. Out west, the Los Angeles Police Dept. has the same mind-set as mine: You get promoted, you go bye-bye. The folks working 2,824 mi. away in New York City's police aviation unit have the same "three stripes, you're out" policy.

Between the City of Angels and the Big Apple lies DeKalb County, Ga., a 700,000-resident suburb of Atlanta. There, the police department's Aerial Support Unit assesses the transfer of pilots on a case-by-case basis. If moving a pilot who just made sergeant will adversely impact the unit, the new sergeant gets to stay. Seniority is then sub-ranked among the sergeants based upon who made it first.

The Maryland State Police Aviation Div. has a different approach entirely. Its pilots used to be sworn troopers, but as promotions and retirements began depleting their flying corps, the state had to do something. Their answer was to hire civilian pilots who already had the credentials required to fly their AS365 Dauphins. Now, of the 50-something pilots they have, fewer than 10 are sworn. Some are actually retired sworn pilots (including a former lieutenant) who returned to fly as civilians.

Many agencies are making the shift from sworn pilots to civilian employees, and even contract pilots. It's cheaper than paying the higher salaries that sworn personnel command, plus the department does not have to spend years developing a pilot in house. They also won't get promoted out of the unit, because flying is what they hired for.

Going civilian, however, causes two problems--one for the agency, and one for sworn personnel. For the police department, a civilian pilot is a one-trick pony. They fly, no more, no less. They can't be redeployed the way a badge-toting, gun-carrying policeman can. As for how the sworn people feel, a civilian is taking a slot that they (the sworn personnel) might want. Police unions across the country tend to see it the officers' way, and lead the fight--sometimes successfully, sometimes not--to keep non-sworn people out of the hangar.

But for now, my department has a new patrol sergeant, my hangar has an empty pilot's slot, and we aren't set up to hire a civilian driver. What troubles me the most is that the only way "Sgt. Dave" can return is if my spot opens up. (And lately, he's been seen tampering with the brakes on my car.)

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