Today’s police officers certainly have a wide array of assets and support in order to help them complete their job safely and effectively. The long list includes: detectives, SWAT, K-9, marine units, mounted and, of course, airborne law enforcement. These assets make for powerful tools in the law enforcement arsenal.
The missions for which airborne law enforcement can provide patrol officers an added advantage are many and varied. The list is almost limitless; perpetrator searches, missing person searches, vehicle pursuits, photo missions and emergency transport of personnel and equipment are just a few of them.
One of the most common requests for an airborne law enforcement unit is to assist in a search for perpetrators, usually inside backyards or a wooded area. Often, the suspects were involved in a foot chase and the responding officers lost the suspects within a specified area. Once a suspect has been lost within backyards or a wooded area, ground units should make an effort to set-up and maintain a good perimeter. This often requires a great deal of self-discipline because our instinct is to run in and search. Even two officers can maintain a fairly good perimeter if they each take up opposing corners and at the very least can see if the subject emerges from the block. If an airborne asset has been called they will obviously conduct their search from an airborne perspective.
If it is daylight, they will conduct a visual search with the naked eye and perhaps a daytime camera. If the search is at night, they will almost always use the forward looking infra-red and more frequently, night vision goggles. If the perimeter has been established and ground officers have decided to commence a search, it is very important to notify the airborne unit that officers are within the search area. Furthermore, if possible, search in groups of two or more. With groups of two or more police officers searching, a single person becomes very obvious on the FLIR screen or night vision goggles. Ideally, the perimeter should be maintained, and no ground search be commenced until the airborne unit can at least make a preliminary sweep of the area. Be mindful that the FLIR and NVG’s are not guaranteed to see a particular subject. If they are well hidden, they could certainly still be in the search area. If an airborne unit “clears: a particular area, proceed with caution!
Vehicle pursuits are another assignment in which the airborne law enforcement unit can make a significant difference. Once overhead the pursuit, the airborne unit can follow the wanted vehicle, often discreetly, allowing ground units to loosely tail the wanted car and do so safely. In many cases, the pursued car also slows down believing they have “lost” the ground units. In any case, both police officers and the public are much safer. Of course, legal constraints and department guidelines always take precedence but if an airborne unit arrives on scene and is discreetly following the wanted vehicle, ground units can follow and when the opportunity arise, such as when the subjects park or are stuck in traffic, ground units can move in for the arrest.
Although emergency response is the most obvious use for airborne law enforcement aircraft, they can also be used for other assignments. Photo missions including pre-raid photos before the execution of a warrant, photos in connection with a large upcoming event such as a VIP visit or large concert or sporting event. Photos taken for presentation in a court case can be very valuable. New York State has a law that increases the class of felony if a drug dealer sells within a certain distance from a school. Prosecutors often took aerial photos of the defendant’s arrest location in relation to a nearby school. In some cases, multiple schools were within the prohibited distance! The airborne photos served as a very powerful visual aid for judges and juries.
In recent years, the addition of microwave downlink have greatly expanded the airborne law enforcement capability. Now aircraft can transit real-time video directly to command centers and ground receivers. This now allows commanders to make tactical and strategic decisions with much better information than ever before. Naturally, this makes for safer operations for all.
The airborne law enforcement aircraft might also be called upon to assist in the most unusual of circumstances. During President Bush’s (senior) term in office, First Lady Barbara Bush was visiting New York City. After her New York City appearance she had another event to attend in upstate New York. After a last minute maintenance issue grounded her helicopter, the Secret Service turned to the NYPD Aviation Unit and asked if they could transport the First Lady. History was made when the NYPD Aviation Unit became the first non-military unit to transport a member of the first family on an official mission. No, the NYPD Aviation did not get to use the coveted Air Force 2 call sign!
The airborne law enforcement mission is truly limitless, ground officers and investigative units should not hesitate to call for them in emergencies or consult with them on non-emergency requests.