One of the nation’s first police helicopter units is being grounded by budget cuts.
The Wichita Police Department – one of the first in the country to begin using helicopters nearly 50 years ago – has eliminated funding for the air unit in 2017.
“Tough decisions have to be made,” said Capt. Dan East, who, as head of the Special Investigations Unit, oversees the air unit, which consists of a helicopter, a pilot and a mechanic.
Axing the air unit was one of the moves police officials made to help pay for outfitting all officers with body cameras – a commitment made at a community forum in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.
East said it would take $300,000 to $350,000 a year to maintain the current level of staffing and operation for the air unit.
“For me, it is part of our history,” East said of the air unit. “It’s been around a long time. It is something that is a valuable tool.”
At the same time, he said, “it’s expensive. It’s not cheap.”
As things stand now, the unit will cease operation on Saturday. But East and Lt. Paul Shields, who pilots the helicopter, are clinging to hope that a way can be found to finance the unit’s operations outside of the department’s budget.
The Wichita Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization, was established earlier this year to raise money to enhance services, training and use of technology by the police department.
The air unit is one of the possible recipients of money raised by the foundation, East said. To date, however, the foundation has yet to hold any events or receive any contributions.
We’re holding on to that last thread (of hope) a little bit.
Wichita Police Capt. Dan East
“We’re holding on to that last thread (of hope) a little bit,” East said. “Some people may say we’re holding on to that falsely.”
Foundations around U.S.
When Gordon Ramsay took over as Wichita’s police chief in late January, “the air unit was on death row,” he said in an e-mail response to questions.
“We’ve been working to find funding sources by examining what other police agencies are doing,” he said.
Several cities around the country have police foundations that augment law enforcement agencies.
“If you look at some of those others out there, they’re impressive,” East said.
The Atlanta Police Foundation spent $3 million in the 2013 fiscal year on various programs, according to the organization’s website. Since its founding in 2007, the St. Louis Police Foundation has donated $4 million to police department programs, equipment and training.
The Los Angeles Police Foundation has given $25 million in grants since its formation in 1998.
Shields, the pilot for Wichita’s police helicopter, said organizers of the local foundation hope to learn what they can from successful organizations elsewhere.
“We’re not going to re-invent the wheel on a lot of things,” Shields said.
Police officials have conducted “extensive research” on grant opportunities, Ramsay said, and have been talking with criminal justice partners in an effort to find funding to keep the air unit active.
“We have not yet found a sustained funding source, and final decision time is just about here,” Ramsay said.
Wichita’s early use of helicopters
Kansas City, Mo., is considered the first police department to launch an around-the-clock helicopter patrol program, in May 1968. Wichita was among the first five departments in the nation to do so, becoming fully operational less than two years later.
The first national convention of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association was held in Wichita in 1970.
Wichita had two police helicopters until 2003. The air unit had two pilots, two observers and a mechanic before cuts four years ago made it a part-time operation.
Studies have shown that a police helicopter crew can take in what it would take 10, 20 or 30 officers on the ground to see, depending on the terrain, Shields said.
“If nothing else, it’s a way to free up resources,” Shields said.
A helicopter can speed up the search for a suspect or a missing person because it can cover so much ground so quickly.
“A lot of times, what we look for and don’t find can be just as important as what we look for and do find,” Shields said.
Tracking fleeing vehicles
Helicopters can be particularly important in vehicle pursuits, Shields said. Once the crew is able to pinpoint the fleeing car, he said, “that enables the officers in the car to just slow down and back it off.”
Fleeing vehicles “are not going to get away from the helicopter,” he said. “It just makes everything so much safer.”
Based on what he’s seen of pursuits while up in the helicopter, Shields said, most drivers ease off the gas pedal when officers back off and turn off their flashing lights.
“They just start driving normal a lot of the times – or pull into an alley or drive home,” he said. “Anything’s better than running a red light” and potentially colliding with another motorist.
Shields said he is concerned vehicle pursuits will be riskier without the assistance provided by a police helicopter. The chases are “a necessary part of the job” at times, he said. “The most important thing, once one starts, is getting it stopped” safely.
The helicopter now in use was purchased in 2003. It’s done “an incredible job for us” and is in great shape, Shields said.
Transitioning to a drone
The police department and sheriff’s office are considering adding a drone.
No decisions have been made yet, however.
Shields expressed concerns about the effectiveness of drones. Numerous air space restrictions exist over the Wichita metropolitan area, and operators must maintain visual contact with the drone at all times, he said. Drones also have a 400-foot ceiling and can’t operate within 5 miles of an airport.
“I think the general public would be very averse” to using drones to provide aerial surveillance, Shields said. “It just seems to me that it is so Orwellian and Big Brother-like. They don’t want that hovering right out their bedroom window.”
Contracting with a private aviation company to use small planes is another possibility, East said. But it has substantial issues as well.
You can’t hover an airplane.
Lt. Paul Shields, police helicopter pilot
“You can’t hover an airplane,” Shields said.
Wichita Police Foundation
For more information, go to http://www.wichitapolicefoundation.org/about.html.