The high price of a bird's eye view

Making the most out of an aerial unit


     Continuous training for the Los Angeles PD consists of learning how to use upgraded equipment, a TFO "check ride" every six months with the chief TFO, and a pilot "check ride" every 90 days to demonstrate the ability to operate the aircraft in normal and emergency situations.

     Law enforcement agencies run the risk of their purchased product or technology not accomplishing as promised and turning failed results. Alpaugh sees these failures as the result of one of three instances: (A) Someone didn't know how to use it properly; (B) It failed and never got fixed; or (C) Air crews aren't using the technology or are not recurrently trained. "When the big incident happens and they have to use it, it's not being used properly and winds up taken out of the aircraft because of weight," he adds.

Piloting the price

     Lifting off, an investment in aerial support shouldn't be taken lightly. "[Agencies should] make a commitment not just to the cost of the helicopter, but really a commitment to using it as close to continuously as possible, which means flying more than one helicopter and having more than one flight crew — which is extremely expensive," Miller says. He explains that using it as much as possible maximizes the investment, because the more the helicopter is in the air, the more successful the TFOs are going to be in catching criminals and keeping communities safe.

     St. Louis uses its multi-jurisdiction to help finance its Metro Air Support Unit; however, according to Wisdom, "it's not set up to be able to fund all of the projects to keep the helicopters and flight operations going alone." St. Louis recently took delivery of a MD500E model helicopter, valued at more than $1 million, through Homeland Security grants and is currently trying to purchase a new infrared unit and spotlights as well.

     Similarly, Los Angeles occasionally obtained some of the technology on board of its helicopters through NIJ grants and other state grants.

     With the multitude of technological options available for aerial support, deciding which aspect to zero in on can be daunting. "You have to try and figure out what your highest needs are," Wisdom advises.

     Alpaugh agrees, "It can get expensive, especially when you're dealing with HD technologies."

     Regardless of whether the TFO is looking at the latest computer tablet monitor or peering out the window, the helicopter affects the criminal behavior as much as it does the budget. "[If] the criminal knows that there are eyes on them … they'll either flee and try to hide … or stop what they are doing and wait for police to arrive," Miller says.

     "Generally it interrupts whatever the criminal activity was and makes it safer for the people on the ground." That, for all its cost, is most definitely worth the price for an eye or two in the sky.

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