When most police officers think of their airborne law enforcement support, they think in terms of perpetrator searches and vehicle pursuits. Airborne law enforcement units are wonderful tools to assist in these types of assignments and their success has been documented for years. However, aircraft can be used for a variety of missions that are not always readily apparent.
The COMPSTAT age
The New York City Police Department made the term "Compstat" the most in-demand strategy of the last 15 years. Using computerized statistics, the NYPD targeted crime hot spots and areas of crime spikes rapidly, helping to drive the numbers down. When the NYPD expanded the Compstat concept to almost every other facet of their department, the brass was challenged to be innovative and creative. Young captains primarily assigned as executive officers in the NYPD's 76 patrol commands were tasked with "traffic stat" and were responsible for reducing accidents within their commands. One new captain, in an attempt to add flash and substance to his upcoming presentation, used the NYPD Aviation Unit to assist in taking both video and still pictures of intersections, highway exits and entrance ramps and any other sites that were contributing to accidents. He also included the steps he would take to correct these conditions. When it came his turn to present to the top brass, the entire strategy was very well-received. The airborne video and pictures turned what is normally a very dull topic into a dynamic and informative presentation. "I was really able to clearly articulate and explain the problems and my solutions," noted the captain. "The brass asked me a few tough questions that I was able to adequately and completely answer using many of the aerial photos I had taken. After the meeting, several chiefs made particular mention of the aerial stuff I had used." You guessed it, the aviation unit was then busy for weeks with numerous requests form other captains to try and replicate their colleague's success.
Airborne law enforcement can assist in planning, as the traffic stat captain showed, and can be actually deployed for the "tactical plan." Is there an unusual spike in burglaries in a particular neighborhood or precinct? Ask the aviation unit to provide directed patrols and make noise when in that area. The burglars are sure to get the message and either move on or cease their activities entirely. If a particular grand larceny auto (GLA) pattern is identified, have the aviation unit work in conjunction with the auto larceny officers. In a very unusual case, a major east coast aviation unit was asked to transport a detective between two cities in connection with a joint federal/state narcotics investigation. It seems that a corrupt police officer had been hired to transport drugs between the two cities. The officer would always travel at a high rate of speed, making ground surveillance difficult, if not impossible. The case detective would watch the dirty officer accept the drugs in one city and then fly to the next city to watch the officer complete the transaction. This made for smoother court testimony because he could testify to both ends of the deal.
SWAT teams or specialized response teams are always training and planning for the "what if" scenarios faced by every agency. The airborne law enforcement unit can help. Use their capabilities to take aerial pictures of sensitive or high-risk targets to help assist the response team in formulating a tactical plan. Perhaps the water treatment plant, set back from the road, has numerous back roads and buildings. It could prove very useful to be able to call up crisp digital pictures on the team's laptop if an incident occurs at one of these sites. In a similar way, a team preparing to execute a warrant can find real-time pictures to be invaluable. If that doghouse in the secluded rear yard has two pit bulls as residents, it's nice to know before the execution of the warrant begins. This capability is not limited to small tactical operations. If the department's office of emergency management is planning for a large-scale disaster such as flooding, hurricanes or a blizzard, aerial photos can show the "big picture" and help prepare for these catastrophes.
The airborne law enforcement unit can provide a tremendous advantage in a court case. In one east coast city, a tactical flight officer was asked to testify at a jury trial for a grand larceny auto case. Given the fairly routine and minor nature of the case, the officer asked the district attorney why they wanted his testimony, as it seemed it did not significantly add to the case. The DA responded that using the helicopter conveys a sense of importance to the jury. The case must be important if they went to great lengths to apprehend the offender. The result? A five to seven-year stay in a state prison.
District attorney's offices in New York City use aerial photos for another very distinct purpose. Under New York State law, selling narcotics within a certain distance from a school raises the crime to a higher-grade felony. In an effort to show the proximity of the schools to the sales location, the aerial photos, with graphically added distance markers, are hard to beat. In some cases, there are multiple schools within the distance, and an aerial photo drives that point home nicely. One assistant district attorney remarked, "We used to have to provide testimony from several individuals, including a representative from the school, building department and police department. Now we use one person with the aerial photo. It is dramatic, effective and useful."
The DAs also use aerial photos for very large crime scenes. They are able to tie these large scenes together, especially if a vehicle pursuit spans several miles and consists of multiple crimes along the way. There is no better way than to present these large locations than with aerial photos.
Dog and pony shows
Cities and states are always looking to draw in more business and tourists. Throughout the year, there are always opportunities to "showcase" a city for trade groups, travel agent groups, convention and conference planners and other influential people. Some cities have displayed all their resources and specialized equipment, including aircraft, to send a message that their particular city or state takes crimefighting seriously and is prepared for anything. Working in conjunction with visitor bureaus or the local chamber of commerce, police departments can help their cities "shine" and show that they are ready, willing and able to be a tourist spot or conference destination.
More than just a patrol tool
All police officers and supervisors should think "out of the box" when it comes to using the airborne law enforcement units of their agencies. The airborne law enforcement unit is usually very cooperative and willing to help in any way possible.
They love to fly, and supporting the mission of their department is the best flying possible!