Police Face Much to Consider In Airborne Use of Force

By By Frank Lombardi | July 1, 2016
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The U.S. Coast Guard’s Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron is tasked with stopping illegal drug-running boats

On Sep. 18, 2015, a sheriff’s deputy from San Bernardino, California, employed the use of deadly physical force to stop a dangerous fleeing suspect in a vehicle on the Interstate 215 freeway. What made this event unique was the deputy’s vantage point: his gunfire came from above the suspect, fired from the sheriff department’s helicopter.

This conjures up a scene common in many action films. In reality, the airborne use of deadly force is a seldom-employed, highly specialized tactic. But with active shooter and domestic terrorism incidents seemingly on the rise, many more law enforcement agencies are examining the possibilities of integrating an airborne use of force (AUF) program into their mission profiles. As one can imagine, questions regarding ethics and legality arise.


Exploring such avenues begins with an understanding of the use of force concept. Although it has no set definition, it is generally accepted that the use of force refers to the amount of effort required by police to get an unwilling individual to comply. Law enforcement agencies have policies guiding use of force on an increasing scale, or force continuum. Officers are to use only the level of force required to gain compliance — from a mere presence, to verbal commands, to bodily force, then nonlethal weapons. Deadly force is the ultimate measure taken only to stop a suspect who reasonably poses a serious threat of death or serious injury to the officer or other individuals if not apprehended.

As simple as this sounds in theory, every law enforcement officer practically knows that the force continuum can go from one end of the spectrum to the other in an instant. Oftentimes they must make tough choices in split seconds if they are to ensure the safety of the public or of themselves. Judgment as to what is “reasonable” has an undeniable element of subjectivity and will most certainly become a large part of any court proceeding after an incident.

Now enter the law enforcement helicopter. It is considered a “force multiplier” in its own right, for its mere presence is a projection of force and can be a deterrent just by being on scene. Continuing up the scale, the helicopter can rapidly and safely insert trained personnel and equipment into ground positions that can give them the advantage over dangerous subjects in need of apprehension.

Helicopters can be “force multipliers” in a police agency’s force continuum.
Photos courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard and Sheldon Cohen

The supreme advantage of the helicopter is its use of the third dimension: speed and a vertical vantage point that rivals all others. When coupled with the proper marksmanship tactics, the helicopter can facilitate the ultimate use of force in the most appropriate of circumstances.

By now there may be readers thumbing through the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) looking for the rule that prohibits dropping from the aircraft anything that could pose a hazard to those on the ground. But law enforcement missions such as AUF fall under the category of “public use,” which means that due to the nature and necessity of their particular missions, they are not subject to many of the civilian regulations as outlined in the FARs.

Virtually any airborne law enforcement mission has the potential to escalate, and having an aircrew appropriately trained in use of force tactics provides an added advantage. Aerial security for movement of dignitaries or government officials, high-profile events or protests, or sensitive item or weapons movement may allow some planning. Interdiction of active shooters, barricaded subjects or high-threat vehicles may evolve more quickly. But in all of these scenarios, circumstances can go from observing to engaging in an instant.

AUF may be a highly considerable option in proper settings. For an urban proper setting, interdiction from an aircraft may be restricted or even an unusable tactic. Conversely, it may be the one and only vantage point that allows an unobstructed view of an intended target, or it may provide the best means of scouting for locations to strategically place officers. Every scenario will be unique.

Aside from any legal challenges, there will always be physical, geographical, political and social challenges that will dictate whether a use of force program of this nature would be viable.

Perhaps the best example of a well-documented AUF program is the U.S. Coast Guard’s Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON), tasked with stopping illegal drug-running boats from South America.

The Guard developed a thorough protocol for interdiction in this scenario. In short, if a vessel is suspected to be a drug-running boat, visual and aural commands for the boat operator to stop are employed. If they are not obeyed, warning shots are fired across the vessel’s bow with an M240 machine gun from the Guard helicopter. If the boat still does not obey the order, an RC-50 laser-sighted.50-caliber precision rifle is fired at the engines of the noncomplying vessel to try to bring it to a stop, allowing Coast Guard officers to board it.

According to the Guard, HITRON has successfully stopped every “go-fast” boat it has encountered since employing armed helicopters, stopping the transport of more than a billion dollars worth of illegal drugs.

The New York Police Department Dept. has added an airborne-use-of-force element to its force continuum since 9/11. Crew chiefs on board its Bell 412 Air-Sea Rescue helicopters carry M4 rifles, and a Barrett .50-caliber
rifle can be carried onboard its Bell 429s.
Photo by Sheldon Cohen

In the wake of 9/11, the New York City Police Dept. has since added an airborne element to its use of force continuum. Trained crew chiefs on board the Air-Sea Rescue Unit’s Bell Helicopter 412 rotorcraft can carry M4 rifles. A Barrett.50-caliber rifle can be carried onboard the Bell 429 models. Modeled after the HITRON program, these tools are to be used on material targets only.

If a department is interested in starting a program, no matter how large or small, one of its best resources is Michael Peck, the director of training for Paladin Resource Group. A former U.S. Army attack helicopter instructor pilot, Peck has trained many local and federal agencies, most recently the Ontario Police Dept. in California and the Leon County Sheriff’s Office in Tallahassee, Florida.

Acceptance of an AUF program, he said, can be sought by “proving how it lowers risk through a review of the department’s risk assessment program and work to include the benefits of a professionally qualified AUF aircrew.” Peck explained that an AUF-qualified aircrew can reduce risk for ground-based officers and civilians.

Pilots and SWAT emergency service personnel should also learn how to cooperate with each other to ensure proper cross-pollination and excellent communication between disciplines. Peck said crews receiving AUF training should do so from a veritable source. “Departments take a huge risk in figuring AUF out for themselves,” he said.

Peck explained his training methodology involves rotating all crewmembers through each seat, ensuring that both pilots and shooters experience the mission from each other’s points of view. Shooters need to be wary in and around the helicopter and rotor systems. They’ll need to be trained on the ingress and egress of the aircraft, and how to properly secure themselves and their weapons. They’ll need to learn to shoot while wearing additional gear such as flight helmets and night-vision goggles and to properly communicate with the aircrew. They’ll also need to become familiar with helicopter aerodynamics, the aircraft’s instabilities and the physical effects of flight on the trajectory of their ordinance.

“Shooting sideways out of a moving aircraft subjects a bullet to various forces that must be accounted for when aiming, such as trajectory shift, projectile jump and gyroscopic precession,” said Rucie Moore, an experimental test pilot and retired U.S. Army AH-64 Apache instructor.

Trajectory shift, Moore explained, is a round’s sideways velocity due to the helicopter’s forward velocity, while projectile jump is when a spinning bullet pitches up or down as it yaws to align itself with the wind, depending on the side of the aircraft its shot out. Concurrently, gyroscopic precession is always altering the projectile’s course to the right.

Similarly, aviation personnel need to understand the nature of the weapons and the effect of the percussive forces in and around the cabin. They also should consider any additional items, such as weapon-mounted lasers or weapon stabilization equipment.

Brass catchers are absolutely necessary. They ensure that expended hot shell casings are contained and don’t rain down on the ground or end up jammed in flight controls, the rotor system or down the pilot’s flight suit.

Considerations for shooters on helicopters include familiarity with the uniqueness of helicopter aerodynamics, aircraft’s instabilities and the physical effects of flight on the trajectory of their ordinance. Graphic by Steve Colby

Weapon selection will require its own evaluation, perhaps to a degree based not only on geography, politics and departmental need, but also on the inherent nature of shooting from a helicopter. Most weapons suitable for AUF do not have magnifying scopes, as vibrations can be magnified and loss of situational awareness due to narrow field of view can degrade shooting ability. For this reason, red-dot laser sights are preferred.

Flying tactics will need to be adjusted to suit the AUF mission. Not only must the flight crew be wary of the height-velocity diagram, but they also must expect the possibility of being fired upon and fly accordingly, given the nature of the incident.

Peck emphasized that “the AUF mission and associated training must include the ‘whole-crew’ concept, communicating and collaborating to put the whole crew in the safest and most effective position to engage a threat.”

Becoming experts in the field is the strongest way to temper the question of what is the most reasonable response to a threat. Crew coordination, situational awareness, flight maneuvers and engagement tactics are all combined to build a sound AUF program. It should be emphasized again that the AUF concept does not immediately result in shots fired.

As Peck said, “The aircrew’s job is to observe first and fire last.”

The suspect in the 2015 San Bernardino incident had allegedly committed a home-invasion robbery before the high-speed pursuit going the wrong way on the freeway, with little regard for countless lives. That day, the Sheriff’s department was faced with tough choices. Pilots are often taught to use superior judgment to avoid having to use superior skills. In the highly-sensitive world of law enforcement, it’s going to be superior planning, superior training and superior documentation that backs up the superior judgment when making the tough decision to use these special skills.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron is tasked with stopping illegal drug-running boats (top). Helicopters can be “force multipliers” in a police agency’s force continuum. (bottom). Photos courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard and Sheldon CohenNeed To KnowA helicopter presence can be enough to deter resistance.AUF falls under “public use” in U.S. aviation regulations.Aircrews must consider helicopter aerodynamics when shooting.

Family Sues Over Helo Shots

A California family in April filed suit against the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Dept. over what the family alleged are injuries sustained as a result of deputies’ gunfire from the department’s helicopter.

The helicopter joined in the pursuit of a suspect who drove his SUV the wrong way onto Interstate 215 on Sep. 18, 2015, to flee police. Judging the driver a threat to others, the aircrew fired on his vehicle. Shots struck the driver, who jumped from the moving vehicle and died shortly thereafter.

His vehicle struck the family’s SUV. The husband, wife and 13-year-old son in it claimed severe injuries and seek compensation from the sheriff’s department for what they say are millions of dollars in medical costs.


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