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Getting your department’s aviation unit off the ground

Airborne law enforcement has had tremendous growth over the past twenty years and in the United States alone, there are more than 800 agencies operating law enforcement aircraft. The intuitive and anecdotal benefits of police aircraft are numerous. It just makes sense that searching for a suspect in a wooded area is safer and more effective using an aircraft equipped with a heat-seeking sensor. Recent studies conducted by the Houston Police Department, in the United Kingdom, and Canada formally document and explain these benefits through research and empirical evidence.

The economic stimulus package still has many unanswered questions, but many law enforcement agencies are now in the process of applying for their fair share of the stimulus money. Agencies that had cancelled or postponed hiring of new officers and purchasing new equipment are now prepared to move forward.

Many agencies that had considered acquiring a law enforcement aircraft might now have the funding and means through the stimulus package.

The question becomes: “How would we do it, and where would we start?”

There are a lot of law enforcement agencies already operating aircraft, and as a consequence there’s a lot of talent and experience already out there for you to tap into. Contact neighboring airborne law enforcement agencies and get their input and experiences. Another wonderful organization is the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA). The ALEA has a website www.alea.org with countless resources including information on starting and running an airborne law enforcement unit. The ALEA provides support, networking opportunities and classes on a vast array of airborne law enforcement topics Airborne law enforcement encompasses a large body of knowledge but in most cases, all the problems you will have will have been seen by other airborne law enforcement units and their collective wisdom can help.

Aircraft Acquisition
There are three basic options when you go to obtain an aircraft. One is to purchase a brand new aircraft directly from the manufacturer; you can also purchase a used aircraft from various brokers; a lot of agencies acquire a military surplus aircraft. Naturally, all options had advantages and disadvantages.

The first option, the purchase of a new aircraft can be expensive. A new, fully equipped law enforcement aircraft can have a multi-million dollar price tag. A huge advantage is the warranty, training, and support you get—this helps keep operating costs low for the first few years of service.

The second option, the purchase of a used aircraft, can be much cheaper but a good pre-purchase inspection by a competent and respected aircraft mechanic is essential. Use a mechanic that is very familiar with the particular aircraft type that you intend to purchase. Many well-intentioned people might recommend the local airport mechanic or friend in order to save a few dollars. Bad idea. The resulting bill from a major item or component that needs replacement a few months after purchase because it was “missed” by an unknowing mechanic on the pre-buy could be painful.

The third option is to obtain a military surplus aircraft. When the military downsized some 20+ years ago, they “retired” aircraft at an astounding rate. Many people saw this as an opportunity to give these aircraft a “second life” and introduced them into public service. At first, the aircraft manufacturers were skeptical; they feared sales would drop dramatically. In reality, what has happened is quite the opposite. Many law enforcement agencies that began with a military surplus aircraft, agencies that would have never purchased an aircraft outright, saw the tremendous benefits of airborne law enforcement and after a few years, upgraded to brand new aircraft. To the manufacturers’ surprise, airborne law enforcement aircraft sales soared.

In order to acquire a military surplus aircraft, an agency must contact their state’s coordinator. This person will make known to the federal government that a particular agency is interested in obtaining an aircraft. When an aircraft becomes available, other federal agencies have first “rights” to the aircraft and then it will be offered to state and local governments.

There are some disadvantages to a military surplus aircraft. The aircraft come “as is” and sometimes re not airworthy. The acquiring agency is responsible for the maintenance performed in order to get the aircraft airworthy, which in some cases can be expensive. Suddenly your “free” aircraft costs $750,000.

Another disadvantage to military surplus (or “public use” aircraft as they are sometimes called) is that the missions that they can legally fly are narrowly defined and in the case of a law enforcement “public use” aircraft it must be a direct law enforcement mission. The operating agency can receive absolutely no compensation for using their aircraft. While that seems simple enough, it can get tricky.

For example, if a local Sheriff’s office operates a public use aircraft and the local small city wants to use the aircraft in an upcoming warrant execution and offers to “pay for the fuel,” it is considered “compensation” and is therefore not allowed. If an agency operating a “public use” aircraft wants to do a “goodwill” flight and have Santa arrive via helicopter, it would also be considered illegal as there is no “law enforcement” component to the mission. Agencies must be careful to not inadvertently run afoul of the regulations.

It is always advisable to start slow and gradually ramp up your agency’s aviation unit to the operational tempo you desire. The old “crawl, walk, run” strategy is a good one. Don’t expect to have tactical officers “fast roping” to their objective on your first day of operations. Keep in mind that there should be identified and budgeted funding for sustained operations including fuel, maintenance and incidentals. It is very frustrating for an agency and personnel to be stopped and started because of financing issues.

The acquisition of a law enforcement aircraft gives any agency a very powerful resource in meeting their agencies mission and objectives. In addition to the direct contribution an aircraft makes, it is also a wonderful public relations statement. You’re saying that law enforcement is taken seriously and there is a commitment to the safety and well being of the community.

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