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As thousands gathered June 9 in Houston, Texas, for the funeral of George Floyd, police helicopters were overhead, keeping an eye on the safety of those paying respects to the man killed by Minneapolis Police last month.
Houston police on the ground escorted Floyd’s body from the funeral service to a nearby cemetery while the aviation unit kept watch over the procession and throngs of attendees along the route.
“During the funeral, not in any enforcement action, but just the ability to have crowd control, making sure traffic is flowing … certainly that aerial perspective helps a lot,” said Dan Schwarzbach, a former Houston police officer and pilot and now president of the Airborne Public Safety Association.
With 10 MD 500E helicopters, Houston has one of the largest law enforcement aviation units in the country. Even while helping to ensure Floyd was laid to rest without unrest, his death has sparked a nationwide upwelling of protests against police brutality that places high-dollar aviation assets like helicopters on the chopping block.
Although aviation unit budgets, like all police divisions, are driven by personnel costs, helicopters are expensive to buy and maintain and are therefore juicy targets for budget hawks, Schwarzbach said.
“Traditionally, when agencies have had to cut services due to budget cuts, aviation is one of the first places that’s looked at,” he said. “In my own personal experience with the Houston Police Department, whenever we had budget cuts, sometimes the aviation section took on the brunt of a lot of those cuts.”
Brent Bundy, an officer and pilot for a major U.S. metropolitan police department, said aviation units are consistently scrutinized and routinely are a target for budget cuts. First hit is often flying hours, which saves in the near term on maintenance and fuel, he said.
“That, of course, means less coverage for patrol officers and specialty units in need of helicopters and airplanes, thereby compromising their safety,” Bunday told Vertical in an email. “These flight hour reductions can also have huge impacts on the search-and-rescue operations for departments that provide them, compromising the safety of the public.”
“The long-term effect for the air support divisions is, with less money for hiring and training, the qualified pools for applicants is reduced, which makes it more difficult to staff pilot positions in the future,” he added. “Budget reductions can also extend necessary equipment replacement, often resulting in increased costs rather than saving.”
Aviation units and helicopter units in particular may have a hard time escaping the current budgetary negotiations unscathed, Schwarzbach said. Though not law enforcement assets, National Guard helicopters hovering low to intimidate and scatter protesters in Washington, D.C. have drawn attention to police use of helicopters.
“It goes without saying that the scrutiny that’s being given the National Guard helicopters that flew low over D.C. . . . even though those weren’t law enforcement, they weren’t police, it certainly calls attention to helicopters that police might use,” Schwarzbach said. “If that hadn’t occurred, it might not be front and center on people’s minds.”
So far, calls to defund the police have taken hold in reality in a few places, among them Minneapolis, Minnesota, where George Floyd died in police custody in May, sparking nationwide protests. Minneapolis does not have its own aviation unit but has been assisted during the ensuing civil unrest by the Minnesota State Patrol, which operates a fleet of Bell 407s.
Los Angeles has announced cuts of between $100 million and $150 million to its billion-dollar police budget, but where that money will come from has not been decided, according to Chief Michael Moore.
“The size of this budget reduction is significant, requiring a top-to-bottom assessment including how we go about our most basic operations,” the LAPD said in a statement. “The Department has begun the comprehensive review to identify potential costs savings and service reductions to meet this goal.”
An already approved $154 million capital spending plan for the Metro Nashville Police Department in Tennessee is under fire because it includes $12 million for two new helicopters. The Nashville police department flies MD 500Es and Bell OH-58A/C helicopters it got as hand-me-downs from the Army at no cost to taxpayers.
However or whenever a police aviation unit was established, it is often prohibitively expensive to reestablish police helicopter capacity than to maintain it, Schwarzbach said.
“In instances where there has been an aviation unit and for budget reasons or whatever else it was either downsized or eliminated, when they go back and try to upsize or reestablish it, it’s much more difficult because of the acquisition cost, especially if the aircraft were liquidated, the startup cost nowadays certainly would be prohibitive I think,” he said.
There are about 350 agencies in the U.S. that have police aviation units with access to a manned aircraft, according to the Department of Justice. They range from large aviation programs with double-digit fleets like the Los Angeles Police Department to single-aircraft operations in rural counties, but across the board helicopters are a highly visible and often misunderstood symbol of police presence.
Helicopters most often act as a “force multiplier” for units on the ground. They help tail fleeing suspects, provide airborne eyes for police in dangerous situations, crowd control and other missions where an airborne perspective is valuable.
“Any aviation asset, whether it’s fixed wing or a helicopter, is a force multiplier,” Schwarzbach added. “There have been studies that have tried to quantify that and I think the last one that I’ve seen said a two-man air crew can cover an equal amount of ground as 10 patrol cars, or 10 two-man teams on the ground.”
The LAPD, which has the largest city police aviation unit in the United States, touts a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Study that found property crime declines when a helicopter is overhead and more arrests are made when air assets are involved.
“The citizens of Los Angeles accept helicopter patrols as a necessary part of the City’s police system and strongly favor their continuation,” the study found. “Department ground based officers universally support a strong airborne law enforcement program within the department.”
Police aviation units also transport car crash victims and other injured people to hospitals. Many city and county law enforcement aviation units function primarily as helicopter EMS units. Volusia County, Florida has a fleet of three Bell 407s that spend most of their time flying EMS missions and rescuing residents from the ocean and its swampy interior, for example.
In places like California, police and sheriff’s departments often rescue hikers in mountainous areas and forests, Schwarzbach pointed out. They also regularly assist state agencies fighting seasonal wildfires and rescuing residents from those blazes and from the water along the coast. Los Angeles, and the surrounding L.A. County have the largest city and county law enforcement helicopter fleets in the U.S. because they are often faced with emergencies in challenging terrain.
“They need to look at those things that police aviation does,” Schwarzbach said. “In some locales they are performing the law enforcement function; they are also performing an EMS function. They perform search-and-rescue, a lot of hoist rescues.”
Bundy said his department serves a jurisdiction that is home to several million people and benefits from a “long history of airborne law enforcement.”
“We provide 24-hour patrol support along with mountain rescue services,” he said. “Any reduction in police funding would be felt by not only every one of our officers, but also, the citizens of our city.”