Last December, Colorado Springs grounded its police Air Support Unit, making national headlines — even in the New York Times — by putting the unit's two helicopters up for sale in online auctions. The reasons were simple: The unit's helicopters, which were Vietnam-era military surplus donated to the city, were aging out. The cash-strapped city was slashing services, and paying for fuel and upkeep was hard to justify.
It was a defeat for a vocal group of supporters who argued that they gave the police an edge in a sprawling city like the Springs. One was Councilor Bernie Herpin, who calls them "a force multiplier." As Sgt. Darrin Abbink explains, when a burglary call came in, the helicopter could zip over to the scene, spot the suspect and keep him in sight until ground units arrived.
"It can take 8 to 10 minutes for a ground unit to get to a scene, whereas the helicopter could take less than two minutes," Abbink says. "When you look out that window, and you look at the world below you, especially from a helicopter which is only 500 to 1,000 feet high, it's a whole different perspective of what's going on on the ground. ...
"So we lost that set of eyes, that vantage point. Looking for a guy armed with a gun, in the middle of the night, coming around the side of a house, let me tell you it is a scary thing. A helicopter 500 feet overhead telling you that the guy is around the corner or over the fence is a huge advantage."
Yet, after a year without this advantage, one wonders: Has public safety in the city really been affected?
There's no easy answer. While the police department was able to keep detailed statistics on when and how the helicopters were used in years past, it hasn't since kept records as to when it would have used the choppers in 2010.
"There wasn't any way of tracking and saying, 'OK, these specific calls it would have been used on,'" Abbink says. "It got used on a wide variety of things, and that depended on the circumstances of the call. The call came in, and we'd say, 'That'd be a good one for the helicopter.'"
The biggest edge for police came in high-speed chases.
"Our policy on vehicle pursuits used to be, if we engaged in a vehicle pursuit and the helicopter was up, and it could get over to the pursuit, then all of the ground units dropped out," he says. "Obviously, that was safer for the public."
Abbink says there may be only a couple of high-speed pursuits a year, though there was one just last week, according to Sgt. Dan Lofgren. Lofgren, who was in charge of the helicopter unit for seven years, was on a call to a disturbance in the south end that turned into a high-speed chase for an armed suspect. Once it hit 100 mph on the highway, the cops had to back off.
They were able to ID the suspect, and put out a warrant for his arrest, Lofgren says, but no one's apprehended him yet.
"If we had the helicopter, we could have followed him," he says, "and when he stopped at a gas station we could have picked him up, in a much safer way for the public."
Councilor Scott Hente still sees selling the choppers (for about $350,000 total) as "a missed opportunity. We could have used it for crime-fighting, but you'd never know because you didn't have it to use it."
The police are in no way exploring bringing back the unit, says Abbink, and there's no push to do so. Lofgren says the department found a new helicopter would cost at least $4 million, with the high-end reaching $7 million. It's a significantly higher price than what a city closer to sea level would be facing; helicopters flying at an altitude of at least 7,000 feet demand a higher level of engineering.
"When you think of what $4 million to $7 million can do in the department in terms of restoring services, we could bring back our juvenile offender unit, or some of the other units we had to downsize or disband," Abbink says. He adds: "[The helicopter unit] would have to be one of the last things we'd bring back."
The only reason Colorado Springs got helicopters in the first place, Abbink says, is because they were donated by the military in 1995. The only costs were upkeep and the pilots, but with many police officers having previously been at Fort Carson, there were a number trained and certified to fly, "a big savings," in Abbink's words.
He says that even if the military were to donate another helicopter now, the department probably wouldn't be able to accept it.
"Would we love to get them back? Yes. Is it going to happen any time soon? Probably not in my career."