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Eye in the sky? 

Springs police search for the right flight plan to bring back their aviation unit

Some guy brandishing a weapon. A high-speed chase. Missing children in the vicinity of rising waters. Site security for a presidential visit to Peterson Air Force Base.

All are situations in which the Colorado Springs Police Department used its air unit, before it was shut down in 2009 due to a budget crunch.

Now, six years later, Police Chief Pete Carey has resurrected the idea of using aviation for law enforcement.

Such units are popular in mid- to large-sized cities; roughly 300 police agencies across the country have aviation units, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Carey's aviation officer, Lt. Daniel Lofgren, says one here could curtail the need to hire more officers and improve response times to crimes, missing-person reports and other calls for service.

Those sound like big benefits considering a major crime, such as a shooting or hostage situation, ties up more than a dozen officers for hours at a time, leaving some parts of the city essentially unattended by police.

But the cost of an aviation unit is eye-popping: $700,000 for a fixed-wing airplane, $3.5 million for a helicopter, and $800,000 for a camera and sensing equipment. Add to that roughly $250,000 a year for operations.

Given that Colorado Springs is just recovering from extreme budget constraints and layoffs brought on by the recession, and faces a $1 billion backlog of needed capital improvements, it's a lot to ask. Which is why police hope they can gain cooperation in the form of personnel and money from other local agencies that might have an interest in the program. It might also help their cause if Colorado Springs lands the state's new Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting (see "Lofty proposal").

"We're asking for an expensive tool," says Lofgren, who's heading a research effort to relaunch the air unit, in the next year or two. "But the tradeoff is in freeing up other officers to handle other calls. And, basically, we're buying a tool that's equal on most calls to multiple officers.

"So instead of always hiring bodies," he adds, "we're throwing a tool [at crime] that's worth many bodies. It's not going to have time off. It's not going to take vacation. It's not going to take sick leave. It's not going to take medical leave. It's always there."

Nor does an aircraft require a life-long pension as officers do, which has become one of the biggest bugaboos of municipal finances in recent years.

Aviation came to law enforcement in 1918 when New York City formed a volunteer air unit to try to ride herd on barnstormers on the city's fringes, according to policeaviationnews.com. In 1929, the same year New York converted its air unit to a full-time division, the Los Angeles Police Department created a part-time unit using citizens' aircraft. As time passed, the use of aircraft for fighting crime caught on worldwide.

Colorado Springs' first law enforcement air unit operated in the 1970s, but was discontinued after police officer Berney Carter was killed in a 1975 crash; he was assisting patrol in controlling a riot involving 250 junior and senior high school students, according to the Police Department website.

In 1995, the unit resurfaced after the Army donated three surplus Vietnam War-era helicopters to the city. It operated until late last decade, when aging aircraft — one helicopter had been grounded years earlier, and was used only for parts — conspired with the sour economy to put the unit on the chopping block.

In 2008, then-Chief Richard Myers made a pitch to City Council for keeping the unit, noting it flew 11,674 hours from 1996 to 2008, responded to 26,894 calls for service and shared responsibility for 2,641 arrests. He noted, too, that studies showed that police teams that rely on air support have a higher felony arrest rate than ground units alone.

Myers also pointed out specific incidents, such as when a city police helicopter responded to the fatal shooting at New Life Church in December 2007, which turned out to be a lone gunman incident, and to an incident in which a knife-wielding man was in pursuit of a woman in the Citadel mall area. The helicopter hovered over the suspect, causing him to abandon his chase. He was caught and charged with attempted rape as well as with other rapes, Myers said. The helicopter unit also was tasked with monitoring parks and open space and utilities infrastructure, such as transmission lines and substations. And it provided aerial support when dignitaries, such as presidents, visited local military installations.

Myers' pleas went unheeded; the city grounded the unit and sold the two remaining helicopters for $349,200 combined.

Now it's Lofgren's turn to take up the cause. One of the biggest arguments for an air unit, he says, is its response-time capability in a city that sprawls over 192 square miles and has few high-rise buildings to negotiate.

"If I'm near Academy [Boulevard] and [Highway] 115 and a call comes in at Briargate, I can be there within two or three minutes [in an aircraft]," Lofgren says. "It's a question of being able to fly as the crow flies without traffic obstruction. And then once you're there, the aerial view is much more than the people on the ground could ever have."

He adds, "We could search a wooded area the size of Palmer Park for a person with a fully equipped aircraft in 45 minutes with a FLIR [forward looking infrared camera]," he says, "where it would take officers [on the ground] probably the whole night, and it still wouldn't be as thorough." FLIR equipment detects heat, including that emanating from a human body.

And in rescues, a helicopter also would enable workers to pluck stranded rock climbers from, say, Garden of the Gods formations within 30 minutes, rather than seeing them tied up for hours or even a full day.

One 1988 study by the Wiltshire Constabulary in England reported that a helicopter took 12 minutes to conduct a one-square-mile search, compared to 454 man-hours on foot. Recapping several studies and research projects from the Airborne Law Enforcement Association website from 1998 to 2007, Senior Police Officer D. B. Schwarzbach, a pilot with the Houston Police Department, concludes: "Helicopters provide a distinct tactical advantage to police operations. A police helicopter can provide a more prompt response, enhance officer and public safety, increase apprehension rates, locate missing people (suspects, juveniles, Alzheimer['s] patients), save police officer time, and patrol large areas. These benefits, however, are extremely difficult to quantify in dollars."

Another study, conducted in 2001 by the Department of Sociology at the University of Western Ontario, found that air support resulted in higher arrest rates: 46 percent of the time in weapons crimes, compared to 13 percent with ground forces alone. "The police helicopter provides a platform for surveillance that has dimensions of height, speed and mobility that far exceed what can be done solely on the ground," the study states.

LawOfficer.com reported in 2008 that a study showed helicopters were first to arrive at a scene 97 percent of the time; they also resulted in ground patrols returning to service more rapidly after an incident. Other studies, the website reports, have shown that apprehension rates using a helicopter were 91 percent for the Miami Metro-Dade department and 83 percent in Baltimore.

Capt. Don Roby, who works with the Baltimore County Police Department aviation unit, says his agency uses three helicopters to cover 610 square miles with a population of 850,000.

"You see it as a force multiplier," he says. "Instead of having 10 or 11 officers at a scene, you can have three or four."

The department's mission for its helicopters includes handling high-speed pursuits, dignitary escorts, chemical spills, water rescues, fires and train crashes, as well as such government functions as zoning, code enforcement and environmental protection. At incident scenes, aerial views are down-linked to the commander on the ground, he says. Helicopters generally are deployed for specific missions, rather than merely placed on routine patrol. "You shouldn't be flying a helicopter when nothing is happening in your city," Roby says, "or you're burning holes in the sky. When the rotors are turning, the cash register is running."

Which is not to say the helicopter is never used for patrol. If crime trends show a spate of robberies in a certain part of the city, says Roby, they'll run air patrol over those areas.

Roby, who serves as chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police Aviation Committee, calls the helicopter a deterrent to crime, because, "It's always on the news. People do know. If it's a pursuit, we'll light it up with a search light."

But studies are mixed on whether aerial units actually prevent crime. The Ontario study concluded that data didn't support the claim that helicopters suppressed crime rates, and that there was no diversion of crime to non-patrolled areas. The 2008 LawOfficer.com article notes, "There have been various and conflicting studies on the effectiveness of a helicopter in lowering crime rates. Some studies suggest there is no increase in the suppression of crime when a helicopter is used in routine patrols, although all studies show there is a high impact on apprehension rates with a helicopter."

Citizens voiced concerns about noise when the helicopter unit was functioning here. But Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors and Organizations, gives the unit a thumbs-up.

"I will tell you at CONO that one of the most important things for all neighborhoods is safety," he says. "Anything that enhances the Police Department's ability to do its job is going to find favor with a lot of people. Personally, I think it's a good idea to augment the police force by having that sort of capability, which I would assume would allow us to locate wildfire and do all sorts of other things than just policing."

As for privacy issues, Mark Silverstein with the American Civil Liberties Union in Denver says via email he's not opposed to the idea of a police helicopter unit. "I'd be wanting to know more about how the department intends to use that unit and for what purposes," he says, "and whether the costs merit the expenditure of resources instead of devoting them elsewhere."

Lofgren says citizens never raised that as an issue locally, though noise drew complaints. "The majority of times when I would call the complainant back and give them the specifics of the call for service, it was no longer a complaint, and sometimes a 'thank you for being there,'" he says, noting the higher altitude capability available today would reduce noise complaints, if not eliminate them.

Seated at a table in the Gold Hill Division's conference room, Lofgren sounds like a salesman as he demonstrates the latest in FLIR technology, captured on video and displayed on a laptop.

"The cameras these days allow a much greater standoff from the ground," he says, "which means we can fly much higher and see absolutely much better than we could before. We'd be able to see literally 100 times better than the old program."

This, Lofgren notes, means citizens who used to complain about helicopters' noise likely wouldn't even know one was overhead. "We can fly as high or higher than your general aviation airplane that's flying over the city right now, and you would never give it a second thought," he says.

The city's former helicopters flew about 1,500 feet above ground. Lofgren says the higher resolution cameras and lenses allow aircraft to fly two to three times that high.

The sophistication of technology was driven home for Lofgren last May when a vendor came to town to demonstrate its camera equipment. The visit, by chance, coincided with the May 5 fire at Martin Drake Power Plant downtown. After the fixed-wing aircraft took off from Colorado Springs Airport and approached Academy Boulevard, the camera zoomed to the roof of Drake where video images show firefighters clearly visible on the roof fighting the blaze.

During that same flight, the plane flew over the Mountain Shadows burn scar left by the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire, which destroyed 347 homes. The equipment brought an image that was close enough and clear enough that an observer could tell if a person was holding an object in his hand.

So the value of an air unit in identifying the source of a smoke plume and even delivering the first buckets of water if need be seems like a no-brainer. Lofgren says "Bambi" water buckets can be folded up and stored aboard a helicopter for quick deployment.

Firefighting capability is one of the reasons that El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder, who's often voiced a desire to work regionally, says he's "absolutely on board with becoming a partner."

"We have to find something that is effective and works for us in the county," he says, adding that fire detection is an issue. "We're comfortable that if we would have had an aerial resource with the Waldo Canyon Fire, we probably could have spotted that a lot sooner and had a different approach."

Smoke was first reported on a Friday evening, and ground forces couldn't get to it before night fell; smoke again plumed the next day and the fire began its sweep over 18,000 acres. After the Black Forest Fire destroyed about 500 homes in 2013, former Sheriff Terry Maketa's effort to persuade the city, county and Utilities to lease a helicopter during fire season at a cost of $1 million never got traction.

Elder says officials might look for ways to use the aircraft to generate income, such as inspecting transmission lines for electric companies or working out a deal to fly for the U.S. Forest Service in certain circumstances.

Colorado Springs Utilities could benefit, Lofgren says, by using an aircraft to check its water pipelines, which extend from the Western Slope and from Pueblo Reservoir. He says when the program is more well-defined, the department will make a proposal to Utilities.

When it comes to support infrastructure, the city already has an aircraft hangar next to the Jet Center at the Springs Airport, and has about a dozen certified pilots on staff who now serve in non-flight-related positions, Lofgren says. What he's trying to do now is to define the mission, which, in turn, will define what type of aircraft would be most useful.

Roby, the Baltimore police captain, says Baltimore County relies on money from grants, assets seized from suspects and the department's operating budget to fund its air unit on an ongoing basis. While cities across the country discontinued air police units due to budget crunches in recent years, several are now bringing them back, he says.

Council President Keith King was cool to the idea of reinstating a police air unit when he learned about it from the Independent.

"I would like to know what we are going to sacrifice for this," King says. "A helicopter sounds intriguing and beneficial, but something has to give for that to happen."

The Springs Police Department, like Baltimore County, might look to asset forfeiture for some funding, Lofgren says.

According to records obtained by the Indy, the Metro Vice and Narcotics Unit, a multi-agency operation run out of the Police Department, received $1.41 million in seizures of cash from 2010 to 2013, the most recent data available. Under an "equitable sharing agreement" with federal authorities, a Special Investigations Fund gets a share of money from assets seized in federal criminal investigations in which local authorities participate.

The department spent $1.26 million in that four-year period on overtime pay, narcotics "buy money" and rewards, training, vehicle purchases and leases, communications and computers, and electronic surveillance equipment. As of Dec. 31, 2013, the Special Investigation Fund, administered by a board composed of heads of the cooperating agencies in the region, stood at $403,530.

Police Lt. Mark Comte says Springs Police could seek funding for an aircraft from the SIF board of directors if it could establish a link between using the aircraft and the narcotics unit's operations.

Other possible funding sources, Lofgren says, include reducing future hires of police officers, grants, contributions from other agencies, and a partnership with the state's Center of Excellence, should it be located in Colorado Springs.

"Chief Carey is always looking at what the newest technology is out there," Lofgren says. "He's very progressive in researching what's out there to enhance public safety and protect the officers on the street."

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