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When working with airborne law enforcement aircraft, ground officers may wonder about the tactics and techniques used by flight crews to accomplish their missions. Sometimes, the flight crew will conduct a maneuver or fly a flight profile that seems unusual. Most of the misunderstanding lies squarely with the aviation unit themselves, as most do a relatively poor job of in-service training and education for ground officers. In fact, many aviation units simply do a quick course on "securing a landing zone" or "safety around the aircraft." If you desire to learn more about how airborne law enforcement officers operate and the techniques they use, the book, Tactical Helicopter Missions by Kevin Means is a good start. Kevin Means, a 27-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department, with experience from patrol, narcotics and gangs and almost 20 years in their aviation unit, has written Tactical Helicopter Missions to describe and explain many of the missions, profiles and techniques commonly used in airborne law enforcement. Although written for the police pilot and tactical flight officer, any police officer that works with airborne law enforcement aircraft (or hopes to one day be assigned to the aviation unit) can benefit from Kevin's book.
Tactical Helicopter Missionsdescribes the most commonly used mission profiles in airborne law enforcement. He describes the various patrol philosophies used by aviation units. Some units, usually for budget reasons, will only respond to "requests for service" or will only respond to a major incident. The huge downside to this policy is that in the very quick and dynamic world of policing, most critical incidents are over within minutes, if not seconds. Many incidents are often finished before the aircraft has left the airport.
Tactical Helicopter Missionsalso helps explain why many law enforcement aircraft fly as high as 800-1000 feet during routine operations. In order to land safely after an engine failure, a helicopter needs to be at a certain height above the ground. This required height is also influenced by various other factors, including weight and airspeed. For example, in most helicopters, if the helicopter is in a hover, the aircraft needs to be approximately 500-700 feet above the ground in order to auto-rotate safely. Pilots are very aware of these limitations and in fact, they often refer to the regime of flight that does not permit a safe landing as the "dead man's curve" for obvious reasons. In a recent major east coast city, the newly hired Chief Pilot was routinely questioned as to why he flew so "high" during patrol. It seems as though the previous aviation unit commander, who had been transferred for disciplinary reasons, was now attempting to discredit the new Chief Pilot through such dangerous misstatements as "he flies too high." This was from a commander that routinely flew his missions well inside of the "dead man's curve!" In most cases, if the engine failed, he could not have made a safe landing. After a few of these inquiries, a meeting was scheduled and the newly hired Chief Pilot was able to demonstrate that his way was much safer and just as effective. Tactical Helicopter Missions served as his "academic" support to bolster his explanation.
Two chapters of Tactical Helicopter Missions are devoted to the often strange and mysterious world of thermal imagers. Many officers are surprised to learn that thermal imagers cannot "see" through walls or glass. An even bigger surprise is that a thermal imager cannot search underwater. In some cases, an aircraft will be requested for a report of a person drowned. Many ground commanders believe, incorrectly, that the thermal imager can search underwater. Unless the victim is still on the surface, the thermal imager will be ineffective. Other factors that heavily influence infrared search effectiveness are heavy foliage, brush and the temperature of ground objects. Cemetery headstones do a great job of retaining heat and long after sunset, an airborne infrared search of a cemetery can be quite a challenge for the airborne crew.
A relatively new use for infrared searches is looking for indoor marijuana cultivation sites. These sites require high intensity lamps in order to simulate the sun. The lamps and the associated electrical equipment needed to power them generate a significant amount of heat. This heat must be vented or the marijuana plants will die. A properly trained thermal imaging operator can recognize the heat anomalies that indicate a possible indoor growing site in a residence or building. Although this use is new, the legal issues involved in such a search can be daunting. Tactical Helicopter Missions addresses these issues and their impact on search warrants and searches. In fact, Kevin Means' wife, Cyndi Jo Means, is a Deputy District Attorney in San Diego County and is an expert in legal issues in airborne law enforcement. In particular, narcotics investigators should, in most cases, obtain a search warrant before conducting an airborne thermal imaging search for indoor drug farms. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled (Kyllo vs. United States, 2001) that these searches require a search warrant. Airborne units in the United Kingdom have used the above tactic with great success and so far this year, over 250 cannabis farms have been spotted by the West Yorkshire (UK) Police's Air Operations Unit helicopter alone.
Tactical Helicopter Missionscontains several chapters that offer a comprehensive look at vehicle and foot pursuits and the tactics used by airborne law enforcement. Many officers might find it interesting that it is recommended that airborne units do not "clear" or indicate that it is safe at street intersections for ground units. In many cases, there are simply too many variables in an intersection such as pedestrians, animals, road hazards (oil, gas, sand etc.) that an airborne unit cannot effectively clear the intersection. After a vehicle or foot pursuit in which an airborne unit was involved, officers should remember that many airborne units now videotape their activities. A high definition videotape has tremendous value when trying to describe an offender's conduct.
Tactical Helicopter Missionsoffers a good insight and understanding of airborne law enforcement tactics and techniques. The book would be a valuable addition to any law enforcement officer that seeks a better understanding and would like to work more effectively with airborne law enforcement.