Video on the nightly news of police helicopters thundering over a crime scene — often using their night sun to light up an area or search for a suspect — might make people think that the airplane in law enforcement has gone the way of the carrier pigeon or steam engine. That is hardly the case, as airplanes are still extensively used in a wide range of airborne law enforcement operations.
Helicopters are excellent law enforcement platforms. Their thermal imagers make them almost essential for missions such as a suspect search in the backyards of a suburban block. Their ability to fly low and slow enables them to do things an airplane just cannot do. The ability of a helicopter to during a victim recovery using a hoist is unmatched. Thousands of people owe their very lives to the unique capabilities of the helicopter.
However, a helicopter has many limitations — they have a relatively short range, significantly slower speed, and inability to carry a large amount of equipment compared to a fixed-wing aircraft. Need to quickly get to a location 500 miles away? The helicopter trip will be time-consuming and require several fueling stops.
For most agencies, that is never an issue but consider the challenges faced by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Their missions often require them to fly investigators and support personnel to extremely remote locations to conduct investigations. If you look at a map of Canada, you will quickly recognize this daunting task. The RCMP once had to fly investigators into a hunting camp to investigate a homicide that had occurred at a river base camp. Ground transportation was not an option so they had to use a seaplane to get the investigators in. The RCMP often utilizes fixed wing airplanes to conduct these urgent missions.
Don’t think police airplanes are only aloft in Canada — they are used for a wide array of missions here in the United States too. The federal government extensively uses airplanes to fulfill their mission requirements. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the various ICE agencies use a wide array of fixed wing aircraft. Business jets are utilized to move personnel and equipment. U.S. Customs and Border Protection flies a half dozen Predator B unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) over our borders and along our coastal waters.
Other federal missions might require transporting personnel to international destinations including the Middle East or Pacific Rim. These missions just simply could not be conducted by a helicopter — the range and speed of a jet aircraft is absolutely essential. The Customs Service uses P-3 Orions (a large four-engine turboprop aircraft that entered service in the early 1960s as a Cold War sub chaser) to perform drug interdiction and surveillance missions.
Many state and federal agencies use single-engine airplanes for surveillance work. Their ability to loiter over a target for upwards of three hours, their quiet footprint, and the lower fuel costs are all major factors in considering a fixed wing aircraft. Some smaller state and local agencies also use airplanes for prisoner transport, personnel transportation, and speed enforcement.
The US Marshals Service uses airliners flying under a confidential schedule to move thousands of prisoners a year around the United States. Every day this “airline” moves these prisoners to scheduled court appearances or various prisons throughout the United States. This airline moves some of the most dangerous and highest risk prisoners in our criminal justices system. It is a sure bet that the likes of the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and some of the high profile terror suspects currently in federal custody have been “customers” on this unique airline.
Needless to say, the federal inventory includes various makes and models of airplanes including jets, turboprops and single engine airplanes. Although the LAPD fighter jet in the movie Dragnet was a bit of Hollywood legend, there might be any agency that one day finds a use for such an aircraft.
Airplanes present other advantages that are attractive to many agencies. Operating costs can be dramatically lower. Initial purchase price, daily operating costs, and maintenance costs can be half the cost of an equivalent size helicopter. Many agencies also consider the utility.
Consider the case of a southern agency investigating a homicide that required them to send six investigators to New York. The agency aircraft departed their base located in Georgia at 8:00 AM and arrived in New York City around 10:00 AM. The investigators conducted a full day of interviews, reviewing reports and talking with up to a half dozen persons. They departed New York around 6:00 PM and arrived home around 8:00 PM. The total cost of the flight was around $3,000 dollars.
If that sounds like a lot of money, compare that to the cost of six round-trip airline tickets, hotels, rental cars, and per-diem costs needed to complete this assignment and the airplane makes strong financial sense. In another case, a southern agency uses their aircraft to transport prisoners from other states that have been arrested on a warrant. The agency can actually schedule several pick-ups in one day which allows them to bring more prisoners back, utilizing fewer personnel and avoiding the logistics and security concerns of commercial airline flights.
The airplane can also prove beneficial when needing to move a lot of equipment. For example, if large amounts of medical supplies or other disaster equipment needs to be moved, the airplane is the answer.
The ability to fly far and fast, carrying large payloads are the primary advantages of using airplanes. As the law enforcement mission grows more complex and increasingly includes international aspects, the airplane will certainly remain a very strong and useful law enforcement tool for many years to come.