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Police aviation is often depicted as exciting and dramatic. Images of law enforcement helicopters are often shown on the nightly news, usually with a reporter dramatically reporting that "a police helicopter thundered overhead" in connection with some incident or crime. Police chiefs like aviation because it is high-profile and can be seen easily. What better way to show a neighborhood that the chief is addressing a particular concern or condition than with a loud and visible helicopter? Unfortunately, aviation is expensive. Many managers and city administrators can see the advantages of a police aviation unit but they fairly ask, "Exactly how is this saving us money or how can this be considered a good value?"
The Value of Police Aviation
Every few years, a mayor or city council, in an attempt to save money, or make it appear as if they are aggressively looking for ways to save money, will ask all department heads to justify costs. Because it is inherently expensive, aviation units often land squarely in the budget ax crosshairs.
In the past few years, the City of Houston, Texas began researching a plan to largely expand their aviation unit. Due to the cost involved, the Houston Police Department helicopter patrol conducted an extensive project examining formal studies about the cost-effectiveness and value of police aviation. In these studies various researchers attempted to quantify and examine the true benefits of police aviation. It should be noted that many of the studies have been criticized for their methodology and should be viewed with a degree of caution.
In one study, conducted by Paul C. Whitehead, Ph.D, titledThe Eye in the Sky, Evaluation of Police Helicopter Patrols,Dr. Whitehead writes, "Is it worth it? Is not a question answerable by research." The "worth" depends on the value placed on the results it achieves.
A study by the Wiltshire Constabulary in England in 1988 regarding the use of helicopter in a ground search concluded that the helicopter was very effective. The study stated that it took a helicopter 12 minutes to conduct a one square mile search as opposed to 454 man-hours to search a square mile by persons on foot.
The London, Ontario Police Service examined the apprehension rate when a helicopter is involved and noted a significant increase in apprehensions when the helicopter was present on scene. For example, for weapon offenses, when a helicopter was involved they noted an apprehension rate of 46% versus a 13% apprehension rate when the helicopter was not present.
Other studies revealed some interesting facts:
- Helicopters were first on the scene up to 97% of the time and had a significant impact on apprehension rates. In addition, a helicopter was able to "clear" calls quickly and return ground units to service rapidly, thereby increasing the value of the ground units.
- During vehicle pursuits, Baltimore police reported an 83% apprehension rate when using a helicopter, and Miami Metro-Dade reported a 91% apprehension rate when using a helicopter.
- 76% of Toronto police officers polled said that a police helicopter provided a significant increase in personnel safety.
The direct comparison of aircraft to other types of police vehicles such as cars and bicycles are very difficult. Perhaps the most effective way to compare these vehicles was in a study done by the Columbus, Ohio Police Department in which they examined the cost per unit compared to output per hour. The helicopter, due to its high speed and unique capabilities, was very cost effective.
There have been various and conflicting studies on the effectiveness of a helicopter in lowering crime rates. Some studies suggest there is no increase in the suppression of crime when a helicopter is used in routine patrols, although all studies show there is a high impact on apprehension rates with a helicopter.
The Houston Police Department needed to look no further than their own archives to answer the question of value. In 1982, the HPD Planning and Research Division drew their own powerful conclusion about police aviation. "At a time when public outcry is demanding increased services with faster response times, the police helicopter has proven to be one of the most valuable tools available to law enforcement agencies nationwide."
As Dr. Whitehead correctly notes, "value" and "worth" are difficult to measure. To steal from a popular credit/debit card commercial: The cost per hour of operating a light police helicopter: $260.00.
The value to the 16 persons rescued (10 of them children) by police helicopters during the Christmas holiday in 2007: Priceless!