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This twin-engine police helicopter experienced “tail rotor failure in the hover whilst observing the scene below” in the Whitchurch neighbourhood of Cardiff, South Wales, in April 2000. official report


Edmonton police copter as contentious as it is costly

Does city of 900,000 with a low crime rate need such a pricey policing tool, critics ask


Monday, July 22, 2002 – Globe and Mail - Print Edition, Page A3

EDMONTON -- Constable Vern Zelent is doing doughnuts in the inky black sky, an eye trained on a motorist swerving below, when his police radio crackles with a report of possible gunshots in a park across the city.
Less than a minute later, his helicopter approaches the scene, depicted by its infrared sensor as a dark blob interspersed with several ghost-like figures. A tactical officer tucked in the bushes tells the crew to stay back.
As he watches the police activity below, flight officer Constable Randy Goss asks tentatively: "You okay if we light you up boys?" referring to his powerful spotlight.
The seconds pass until the tension in the cockpit is cut by word that the explosive situation is under control. "They're just handcuffing him and he's got two weapons," the tactical policeman reports.
Their work done in the area, the airborne officers thank their comrades and zip along to help out with the likes of impaired drivers, hit-and-runs and stolen cars.
Despite its value, AIR-1 -- one of just two urban police helicopters in Canada -- is as contentious as it is expensive. It was leased nearly a year ago after a fundraising drive, but backers are again asking Edmontonians to support the cause by buying $100 lottery tickets.
Organizers expected all 45,000 tickets would be snapped up before the July 5 early-bird deadline, easily raising $1.5-million to purchase the Eurocopter 120-B. But about 5,000 were still available yesterday, leaving just a few hours before ticket sales end tonight.
Harry Mann, a businessman who is co-chairman of Project Spotlight On Safety, attributes the disappointing initial campaign to the misconception that the police already own the high-profile chopper. As a result, the lottery changed its advertising, hoping the last-minute push would result in a sellout. "We expected that everybody would jump on board and buy a ticket, and they didn't because they didn't know they had to, but now that they know they have to, people are buying tickets," he said.
The fact there is a lottery -- the city was reluctant to give the police additional money, and the police chief was unwilling to cut back services -- raises questions in the minds of some of the project's detractors. Does Edmonton, a city of about 900,000 with a relatively low crime rate, need such an expensive policing tool? And does it help solve and prevent crime?
"I don't see the value," said Michael Phair, one of a few city councillors to speak out against AIR-1, which has yearly operating costs of about $450,000, plus staff salaries.
Mr. Phair, who says the money would be better spent on hiring more beat police officers, said he finds it "intriguing" that the only other Canadian city with a police aircraft is Calgary. The city got its air patrol in 1995, after the sister of a police officer who died as a result of a high-speed chase spearheaded fundraising efforts.
In Canada, a few other cities -- most notably Toronto -- have recently had trial helicopters but decided against continuing them for a variety of reasons, including a lack of evidence their high price tags were offset by reduced crime. (Police in Durham and York regions, sprawling jurisdictions in the Greater Toronto Area, have units Toronto can use in emergencies.)
"Just because Toronto or Vancouver doesn't have it, that should not be a benchmark for the rest of Canada," said Edmonton program manager Staff Sergeant Rick Milne. Both cities are considering helicopters and are closely watching Edmonton. "You don't have to be a large crime-ridden city before they can become effective for you. And, in fact, there's a lot of arguments that say before you get to that level, you should use this technology."
But in addition to the high price, some Edmontonians say the aircraft that usually flies at night awakens them and illuminates their homes. "The first time it happened . . . was shortly after 9/11 and I thought, 'My God, are we being targeted for a bomb?' " said condo dweller Darlene Hammond.
Though she acknowledges the eye-in-the-sky is useful, Ms. Hammond suspects it is unnecessary for a city the size of Edmonton. "If they can't afford it in their budget . . . maybe we're not big enough for one."
But police and other supporters of the idea are unwavering, pointing to four areas: public safety, officer security, police effectiveness and operational efficiency.
"It's using technology to police smarter and really, in our opinion, we've just begun to prove this program and I think our results to date have been very, very positive," Staff Sgt. Milne said.
In nearly 1,000 flight hours over 11 months, AIR-1 has been involved in about 1,870 calls and 350 arrests and was the first police unit on the scene nearly half the time.
As well, it has tracked more than 30 high-speed pursuits, considered a police helicopter's key strength. Once in position, it takes over the chase, allowing cruisers to slow down and reduce the risk of collisions. Unaware that their every move is being tracked from an eye-in-the-sky, fleeing drivers invariably assume they have eluded detection, ditch their stolen vehicle and try to run away, only to be arrested by patrol officers and dogs.
However, there is little solid research to support the role of police helicopters in reducing crime, although studies have found they increase police effectiveness and efficiency -- conclusions borne out in an examination of the year-long 1999-2000 trial in London, Ont.
University of Western Ontario professor Paul Whitehead, who conducted the study, which also determined some of the cost is offset by savings in police time, believes a case can be made for helicopters in Canadian cities.
"A police service needs to decide how it wants to organize itself to fight crime," he said. "And I think that a police helicopter can be, in a number of circumstances, a worthwhile way of doing that."

The police helicopter seems designed as an in-your-face sign of intimidation.” John Sewell, Eye

A police helicopter in Nassau County,
New York demonstrating a low altitude pursuit.