Airborne law enforcement developments in the age of terrorism

Spreading threats demand new skills.

London Metropolitan Police on patrol in a Eurocopter EC145. Under UK regulations all police aviation units must have a crew of 3-a pilot, mission commander and observer.

A police chief from a small Midwestern city explains: "I had a sudden and alarming increase in burglaries in one of my residential neighborhoods. I deployed my helicopter to conduct very visible patrols in this area and, in conjunction with ground units, had the problem under control in a day or two."

ALE aircraft are not confined to conventional missions. Many police aviation units now perform fast-roping, rappel, scuba diver deployment, hoisting, air/sea rescue operations and aerial firefighting.

Another developing mission for airborne law enforcement is airborne use of force. Many agencies have developed a plan to deploy snipers from aircraft to provide superior firepower in "active shooter" and terrorist situations.

Although difficult to define and measure empirically, by most accounts ALE is a very safe and effective resource in law enforcement.


Since the terrorist attacks of Sep 11, 2001, law enforcement has experienced significant challenges in meeting and combating this threat.

No longer purely "reactive," many agencies are now tasked with protecting their particular jurisdictions proactively. Naturally, major cities like New York NY, Washington DC and London, England seem the most likely locations for terrorist attacks, but every single law enforcement agency needs to examine its own landscape.

Agencies everywhere-not just in the US-realize that there are potential terror targets in what would once have seemed unlikely places. The states with the most chemical plants are California, Illinois, Ohio and Texas. Dorothy Schulz is professor of law, police studies and criminal justice administration at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

She is also the former commanding officer of Metro North Police at New York's Grand Central Terminal. Every agency has targets, she insists: "No jurisdiction can ignore the threat of terrorism.

Even rural railroads need to have plans in place to secure and protect their assets." Many departments have turned to ALE as a major resource in securing these potential targets. When it comes to counter-terrorism missions, both fixed and rotary-wing aircraft are used routinely.

Although the missions are usually highly classified, many US federal agencies use high-end turbine jets to carry out their responsibilities. A pilot assigned to a federal agency and who wishes to remain anonymous states that plenty of jets are being used in these missions, including Citations and Gulfstreams.

The most obvious role is omnipresence and high visibility. Mainly, this is accomplished with helicopters flying around specific locations such as tourist areas, landmarks and bridges. While the effectiveness of these flights is hard to measure, there is evidence that efforts have paid off.

In the summer of 2004, a terrorist assigned to survey New York City's Brooklyn Bridge as a potential target reported to his superiors in an e-mail that the mission could not be accomplished because the "weather was too hot"-a reference to the very visible police presence, including aircraft, boats and ground personnel.

Another role for ALE is surveillance of potential terrorist subjects. Loitering high above a suspect, a fixed-wing aircraft using sophisticated equipment can follow a subject for hours. The surveillance can remain covert, and only one aircraft is required-instead of 10-15 ground officers-to accomplish the mission.


There is a wide and impressive array of products available for airborne law enforcement. Just a few years back, most navigation was done with paper maps and an aircrew's familiarity with the area.

New Jersey State Police Sikorsky S76 on a medevac mission. Although these aircraft provide a full range of police aviation services statewide, the S76s serve primarily in the medevac role.

Today, a standard police helicopter cockpit contains a searchlight control, heat-seeking infrared and moving map display. Microwave downlink capability is a recent and rapidly developing technology. Its benefits to a ground police commander are obvious.

A police aircraft using high-definition camera equipment can transmit images to the ground, allowing the commander to formulate tactical plans based on real-time intelligence. Other advanced equipment includes radiological and chemical sensing equipment to detect nuclear, biological and chemical threats.

The law enforcement aircraft has become a very advanced, sophisticated crimefighting tool.


ALE flying can be enormously stressful. A helicopter, operating in busy Class B airspace, conducting a fast-paced mission at the edge of the aircraft's performance envelope, places extreme demands on crew and machine.

As one helicopter pilot explains, "We can be at 500 ft chasing a stolen car, and we have to juggle ATC requests and the police radio as well as looking out for hazards-and always having a place to go in an emergency."

Crew resource management literally saves lives. Many agencies have policies in place that require loss of situational awareness to be treated as an emergency. Winthrop Harbor (IL) Police Aviation Unit Commander Dan Bitton requires his pilots to brief all obstacles in their response area prior to every flight.

Should there be any loss of situational awareness, or uncertainty, a climb is required to a height above any potential obstacle. The bad guys have developed their own techniques and strategies in dealing with law enforcement aircraft.

For example, when fleeing the police on foot, most suspects used to run until they found freedom or were captured. Now, on arrival of a police helicopter, many suspects tend to stop and hide, knowing that the aircraft might be doing an infrared search or believing the aircrew will see them.

This has caused many agencies to have their aircraft depart the area for a few minutes, only to return a few minutes later. Many a suspect has been caught in a mad dash because they thought the aircraft was gone.


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