The value of airborne law enforcement has been demonstrated since 1929, when the New York City Police Department started a fixed-wing (airplane) aviation unit to combat a growing menace of barnstormers. Over the years, airplanes and helicopters have been used in a wide array of law enforcement missions, in both emergency and nonemergency roles. Emergency assignments can include searches, vehicle pursuits, aerial rescues, medevac, drug interdiction, crowd control, airborne use of force and response to in-progress calls. Nonemergency roles include prisoner transport, administrative transport of personnel/equipment and aerial photos/video for planning and court purposes.
In the past 10 years, thanks in large part to the military surplus program, more law enforcement agencies are starting their own aviation units to take advantage of this strong and powerful asset. Today, there are approximately 800 U.S. law enforcement agencies flying aircraft.
If your agency is interested in starting an aviation unit, you ll need to address three main issues: 1) what value will an aviation unit bring to your agency, 2) how do you get started, and 3) what financial and operational requirements must you meet?
There's no doubt that aviation can be an expensive asset. The cost of fuel, maintenance and support can sometimes scare off administrators until they're presented with the benefits.
Over the past several years, formal studies have tried to quantify the benefits of law enforcement aviation use. A study conducted in London, Ontario, in 2004 showed that there was increased efficiency, with less time spent per officer on a call, when helicopters were involved. This study also showed increased effectiveness when using a helicopter: Apprehension rates soared in all categories. When a helicopter worked in cooperation with ground officers, assault arrests increased 14%, weapons possession arrests increased 33% and burglary arrests increased 23%.
A University of Toronto study in 2000 noted a relationship between the use of police helicopters and a decrease in criminal behavior, as well as an increase in offense clearance rates. In the interest of fairness, it should be noted that some critics attacked the methodology used in this study and the results obtained.
Other studies have concluded that helicopters reduce the number of officers needed to maintain an effective perimeter. Statistics from both Baltimore County, Md., and Metro-Dade County in Florida suggest that there is a very high apprehension rate in vehicle pursuits when a police helicopter is involved.
Finally, a university study concluded that helicopter searches were cost effective. Officers in helicopters could effectively search a square mile in 12 minutes, vs. the 454 man hours necessary to search the same area by foot.
Although hard data are valuable in building a case for an aviation unit, don't neglect the power of anecdotal examples as well. Perhaps the greatest benefit of starting an aviation unit is the commitment shown to the public and the officers of the department. An aircraft is a very visible presence that can have a significant impact on the department's crime fighting efforts. One officer from a major East Coast city summed up his feelings: I just feel better when the helicopter is overhead. I like that they re covering us, and it makes me feel safer.
Of course, the value of human life can never be quantified. The newsletter Rotor News, published by the Helicopter Association International (HAI), documented the saving of 16 lives, 10 of them children, between Dec. 19, 2007, and Jan. 7, 2008, using police helicopters. Do you think the parents of the rescued children support the use of law enforcement helicopters?
To borrow from a popular television commercial: the price of operating a police helicopter? $300 an hour. The looks of relief on rescued person's faces? Priceless.
A Note about Terminology
Most police agencies operate public use aircraft, a term that applies primarily to military surplus aircraft. When introducing the ex-military aircraft into the civilian market, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was faced with a tough dilemma: Military aircraft don't go through the same long and arduous certification process that civilian aircraft are required to pass before they are given an airworthiness certificate. This doesn't mean that military aircraft are unsafe or untested, it simply means they go through an entirely different certifying procedure, and the FAA has no input or interest in military aircraft.
When the FAA was asked to oversee these aircraft, it needed a separate class of aircraft, and the public use aircraft was born. Contrary to some misconceptions, public use aircraft are not unregulated. They're subject to different and unique rules and limitations. Public use aircraft can be used only for narrowly defined missions that pertain specifically to an agency s objectives. For example, if an agency plans to train pilots in house, they cannot be trained in a public use aircraft. Similarly, If you want Santa flown in for the annual kids Christmas party, this is absolutely prohibited in a public use aircraft.
Agencies can also operate under the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. Part 91 operators are those agencies that have purchased aircraft directly from civilian manufacturers; their operations are governed by Part 91 rules.
Where Do We Start?
Once an agency has decided to pursue the possibility of starting an aviation unit, there are naturally numerous questions and, sometimes, no clear direction as to where to find answers. A good place to start is with other local agencies that already have an aviation unit. Almost all state police agencies have some form of an aviation unit, and many states have a major city with a police aviation unit.
Other resources include the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (www.alea.org), HAI (www.rotor.com), the Federal Aviation Administration and the aircraft manufacturers themselves. All these resources can provide necessary information to help you evaluate the feasibility of an aviation unit for your agency.
Initial factors to be considered include: What missions will the aircraft be used in? Where are we getting the aircraft from? Will we use sworn or civilian pilots? Where will the aircraft be based? Where will we get the aircraft maintained? Do we have initial and continuing funding in place to sustain our aviation unit?
How the aircraft will be used is the basis on which many other decisions will be made. Do you want your aircraft to conduct patrol only? Medevac? Tactical and rescue? The answer to this question often decides which airframe is best for the particular agency. There s no greater danger than for a program to be up and running when the chief asks for their services and the answer is, We don't have that capability. Communication with all parties concerned is essential.
Aircraft acquisition alone can be a daunting topic. There are three ways in which an aviation unit can obtain an aircraft for use in the law enforcement role; each has its pros and cons.
The selection of personnel is also very important. Will you use sworn or civilian pilots? In smaller agencies, the ability to find qualified and experienced pilots within the sworn ranks might be difficult. Some agencies hire civilian pilots, often retired military or retired law enforcement pilots.
Other start-up considerations include the location to base the aircraft and costs involved. The rents charged at major airports and even some smaller corporate airports can be surprisingly high, but you may be able to convince a major corporation to donate hangar space as a gesture of goodwill to the police department. You can also construct a dedicated heliport for the exclusive use of the police agency, which provides maximum security and flexibility, but is also expensive. The cost of building a small two-pad heliport with hangar, office space and fueling capabilities can easily exceed $1 million.
You must also decide who will do your aircraft maintenance. Larger agencies may have the talent in-house to perform this very important responsibility, but most agencies contract their maintenance to outside vendors. Do the necessary homework and hire a reputable company. Remember, if an aircraft suffers a catastrophic maintenance issue, it doesn't simply glide to the side of the road.
Finally, a new police aviation unit must carry proper insurance. If the agency is large enough, it can be self insured. More often, an agency elects to take out a separate aviation-specific insurance policy to cover its aviation operations.
Just like in general law enforcement, safety is always paramount in aviation. You should keep this in mind when selecting an aviation unit commander and command staff.
The aviation commander doesn't necessarily need to have aviation experience, although it is helpful. Police aviation is truly an industry within an industry and there is an enormous learning curve when taking over an aviation unit. If the commander doesn't have aviation experience, it s absolutely critical that someone appointed to the command staff, usually the chief pilot or director of maintenance, does have this knowledge.
One way to ensure safe and efficient operations is the adoption of strong standard operating procedures (SOPs) that outline and direct every aspect of the unit s activities. SOPs set a standard or benchmark as to how operations should be conducted. This makes for a smoother operation for all involved. Personnel understand and are given direction on how the missions should be conducted, while supervisors have a tool to evaluate whether the operations of their aviation unit are being conducted in accordance with industry standards and department policy.
Initial operations should always follow the crawl, walk, run theory: Start out small, with scheduled operations providing generalized patrol support during peak crime hours. As the success of the aviation unit grows, as well as the support and confidence of ground officers, the unit can expand its operations. If specialized missions, such as SWAT, search and rescue or airborne use of force, will eventually become part of the aviation unit s responsibility, make absolutely certain the entire team is well trained and well prepared for the mission. Don't advertise a service you cannot provide.
It's always tempting to start an aviation unit with a one-shot financing source, such as seized drug money or a one-time grant. Although these financing sources can help start these types of programs, police administrators should always factor in a sustaining operating budget. Consult other aviation units to project costs and set up a realistic operating budget for subsequent years. If this funding stream is not in place, the unit will start and stop when maintenance and operational issues cause the grounding of the fleet and money must be located before operations can resume hardly an ideal situation.
Once they get the aviation unit up and running, most agencies wonder how they ever existed without it. The new capabilities will allow your agency to more effectively and efficiently perform its missions. The keys to success: safety, determination and leadership.
1. Whitehead PC: Police helicopters: Effectiveness, cost & crime prevention. FrontLine. (September/October 2004):18 19. Retrieved Dec. 21, 2008, fromwww.frontline-canada.com.
2. Marz RM: Time-series analysis 1990 1997: The impact of police helicopters on criminal behavior and on clearance rates. (p. 21)Toronto, Ontario, Canada. University of Toronto, 2000.
3. Alpert GP, Gover A: The Use of Helicopters in Policing: Necessity or Waste? South Carolina. College of Criminal Justice University of South Carolina and Department of Criminology University of Maryland, Police Forum. 8:9 14, 1998.
5. Whitehead PC: The eye in the sky: Evaluation of police helicopter patrols, The London Police Service helicopter research project (p. 17). London, Ontario, Canada, Canadian Police Research Centre, 2001.