The high price of a bird's eye view

Making the most out of an aerial unit


     It comes as no surprise to discover that the police helicopter can be safely labeled a force multiplier. In fact multiple studies over the years have shown that criminals are statistically caught more often when the aerial unit flies over scene.

     It also should be no astonishment to look at the bottom line and find the cost to maintain that unit can run an imposing figure; this sum can hover its cost high above less expensive, but no less valuable, public safety ventures.

     With so much of an investment, what can be done to ensure those finances are best utilized for mission?

     Representing a rough cross section of two different environments, the Metro Air Support Unit of the St. Louis County (Mo.) Police Department and the Air Support Division of the Los Angeles Police Department both respond to a large area's day and night calls.

     The Metro Air Support Unit has multi-jurisdiction with the St. Louis Metropolitan PD, St. Louis County PD and St. Charles Sheriff's Department. The unit uses a combination of helicopters and a fixed wing aircraft.

     "Due to funding sources, we formed this multi-jurisdiction to maintain and to keep the operation afloat," says Sgt. Kerry Wisdom, supervisor of the Metro Air Support Unit, St. Louis County PD. "Each [jurisdiction] contributes funding to the unit and by doing so, that keeps our operation going."

     Responding to about 45,000 calls for service every year, Los Angeles has a bit of a different scenario. At 19 helicopters and one fixed wing, the department, says Capt. James Miller, is the largest municipal law enforcement agency in the world.

     Yet, money remains the great equalizer. Regardless of budget size, every choice is affected by funding.

     No one can argue the effectiveness of aerial support in law enforcement. And, as such, an agency may find it beneficial that spending some money might lead to upping its efficiency. After all — the devil is in the details.

     As vice president of technical operations for Helinet Technologies and its parent company Helinet Aviation Services, J.T. Alpaugh compares the typical capabilities from law enforcement's air support to that of electronic news gathering — the aerial images we see on the nightly news and on the major news media.

     "I've heard for years and years from airborne law enforcement from the federal, state and local governments: Why can't we do what the media does? Why can't we get those types of pictures? And why can't we move these pictures over long distances?" Alpaugh says.

     His company offers law enforcement agencies a solution in being able to take a look at how they may benefit from new technologies for air support, understanding that each agency's mission can lend to unique situations or special needs.

     "We don't go in and tell agencies what they need, a lot of these agencies know exactly what they want and what they need," he says. "We're here technologically to help in whatever manner they need help with. It's very flexible in the sense that if [the agency] doesn't need it, we don't provide it — but if they do need it, we can."

Right tool = Right answer?

     Despite any geographic differences, the Los Angeles and St. Louis air support units utilize similar basic tools for sighting suspects, mapping and communications.

     "Some of the technology we have is a search spotlight, a forward-looking infrared system, a moving map system, a GPS and more to assist the tactical flight officer (TFO)," Wisdom says.

     According to Miller, Los Angeles is able to supply its fleet with these, plus "downlink capabilities when we're over major demonstrations and big community events." He adds this provides them the ability to not only record, but downlink to incident commanders.

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