Airborne law enforcement developments in the age of terrorism

Spreading threats demand new skills.

By Ken Solosky
ATP/Helo/CFI Chief Pilot, Newark Police Av Unit

New York State Police Mobile Response Team members "fast rope" out of an Aviation Unit Bell UH1 at ALB (Albany NY) during an exercise.

Aircraft have been involved in law enforcement-formally, at least-since 1929. In that year New York City Police Dept started its Aviation Unit to combat a growing menace of the day-barnstormers! Enterprising young men in their flying machines would set up shop in fields located around the rapidly growing city.

For a small price, customers could take a ride in their new fabulous flying machines. Some aviators would perform stunts. As the city grew, there was a clamor to regulate these so-called reckless aviators. Airborne law enforcement (ALE) was born.

Aircraft used in law enforcement service were fixed-wing airplanes until helicopters became operational in 1948. In reality, aircraft had been used in law enforcement missions even before 1929. If it was thought an aircraft could help, the police simply went to the local airport and solicited assistance from any pilot they could find.

If the pilot was agreeable, the police officer would jump in with him and conduct the mission. Fast forward to today, and aircraft are firmly established in the ALE scene and are recognized as a huge resource for conducting a wide variety of missions.

Aircraft used in these roles range from single-engine piston airplanes and helicopters to airliners. One ALE agency in particular is unique. The Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (JPATS) is a US federal agency charged with the transportation of persons in legal custody between prisons, detention centers, courthouses and other places.

To many it is also known as Con Air. JPATS operates a regularly scheduled service (the exact schedule is a guarded secret) using Boeing 727s and McDonnell Douglas MD83s. Even airships get into the act, as a major east coast city has posted police officers aboard commercial airships covering major events.

In the past 20 years airborne law enforcement has grown significantly. In the 1980s, the federal government began a military surplus program under which agencies could obtain former military helicopters for public use. In the beginning, manufacturers resisted this program as they thought new aircraft sales would suffer.

Ironically, the exact opposite took place. Once an agency which likely could not have afforded a new aircraft got a first-hand look at the capabilities and use of aircraft in ALE, they began ordering new aircraft.

Agusta A119 Koala on patrol over New York City. (Inset) Koala cockpit includes Aeromapping computer, Wescam and Garmin 430 GPS.

Even in these tough economic times, government aircraft sales are helping to sustain the market. An unnamed sales representative from a major OEM remarks, "The economy has hit every segment of the aviation industry hard, but I shudder to think what would happen if we did not have the government sales still going through."

Maintenance facilities too have grown to rely on government aircraft. Phil Bidden is general mgr of Philadelphia PA-based Sterling Heli_copters. He comments, "Corporate work is down but our government clients have fortunately remained steady, allowing us to actually hire a few more maintenance technicians. In this economy that's a blessing."

Conventional police work

The 1983 movie Blue Thunder depicted a highly advanced LAPD helicopter, equipped with a wide assortment of crimefighting equipment such as cameras, listening devices and even "whisper mode," which allowed the helicopter to operate virtually silently.

This movie helped to move ALE aircraft-and police helicopters in particular-into the public arena. Today, no movie or reality police show is complete without a dramatic helicopter scene. Fixed and rotary-wing ALE missions are wide-ranging.

From routine directed patrols over particular trouble spots and searches for missing persons/suspects, to surveillance, search and rescue (SAR) and vehicle pursuits, law enforcement helicopters and airplanes are performing each and every day.

Although cost is always a factor, several university research studies have supported the effectiveness of aircraft. A Toronto University study found that apprehension rates increase dramatically when an aircraft is involved.

Baltimore County Commanding Officer of Detectives Capt Donald Roby explains the advantages of law enforcement aircraft. "When doing a search with a well trained crew and properly equipped aircraft, there is simply no better alternative. For example," he notes, "a helicopter can effectively search a field or park in minutes as opposed to ground officers taking hours."

Often cited as "force multipliers," ALE aircraft can provide a very visible, high-profile presence. If an agency has a particular problem, the use of an aircraft can send a strong message to the bad guys as well as the citizens of the community that the police are addressing their concerns.

Police officer from the London Met in the rear of an EC145 has an impressive array of technology and equipment to perform the mission.

In recent years, police departments have come under increasing scrutiny and liability regarding vehicle pursuits. The National Highway Transportation Administration reports that almost 350 people are killed each year as a result of police pursuits-and they are not always police office officers or suspects.

A study of vehicle pursuits in Baltimore MD and Miami-Dade FL concluded that vehicle pursuits involving police helicopters are both more effective and much safer. If anything, the presence of a law enforcement aircraft often induces the suspects to surrender as they realize fleeing is pointless.

Police Officer Kenneth Brown, formerly of the Newark (NJ) Police Dept Stolen Auto Task Force, describes it this way: "If the bad guys know the police helicopter is involved, they see no chance of escape. For them, it is much easier just to pull over and surrender.

Many stolen auto suspects have told us that the helicopter caused them to stop. Of course, this is much safer for the police and the public. No one gets hurt and the bad guy goes to jail." Most police departments drive their crimefighting operations on a concept developed in the 1990s, known as computerized statistics (comstat).

Police commanders can see, in almost real time, where crime is trending upwards and deploy resources rapidly to address the trend. Time and again in these efforts, an ALE aircraft has proved to be the tip of the spear.


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