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Adventures in Law Enforcement

Their beats are somewhat off the usual path, but these law enforcement professionals take care of business.

March 01, 1999  |  by Rebecca Stone

The Maryland State Police

Established in 1960, the Maryland State Police Aviation Division has long had its eye on public safety. While originally, the division was designed to provide airborne law enforcement, its role was expanded in 1970. Today, under the supervision of Commander Major Donald G. Lewis, the division offers law enforcement, emergency medical (specializing in shock/ trauma cases) and search and rescue services around the clock.

To help fulfill its three- pronged mission, the MSP fields a fleet of 12 Aerospatile helicopters, the newest of which is a powerful twin-engine Dauphin N-3. The crew aboard each helicopter consists of a pilot and a state trooper who is also a nationally registered paramedic. Currently there are 45 trooper/ flight paramedics, 51 flight-suit uniformed and civilian pilots and 59 additional support staff. Current trends indicate that civilian pilots will soon replace the trooper pilots.

"Some troopers are pilots but we are civilianizing," said Public Information Officer Capt. Greg Shipley. Shipley added that his agency feels that civilianizing the pilot positions is more cost effective due to the training that goes into a Maryland state trooper. "We can better use sworn troopers out on patrol. But there is always a sworn trooper in the aircraft."

With eight hangers scatters throughout the state, MSP Aviation Division teams are never far from rendering assistance when needed. Said Assistant Commander Captain James Spicer, "The furthest out we are from any trauma center is 18 minutes. And our ships cruise at 220 mph."

Spicer told POLICE they do a lot of medevac operations as well as search and rescue, plus supporting other agencies. Regarding law enforcement operations, Spicer said that monitoring felons, fleeing a crime scene, is probably the most common. In such a case, the air units stay in contact with ground units and provide direction from their vantage point. In 1997, 137 criminals were apprehended with the help of the airborne units.

When asked about the role of airborne units in law enforcement, Spicer, who has 29 years of law enforcement to his credit, said, "I see it growing because drugs have made society fearful. Our role is increasing because we're having more chases due to drugs." He added that due to helicopter noise, they haven't been widely used in surveillance operations, but new camera technology, which will allow surveillance at a higher altitude, may change this.

Equipment carried on board MSP helicopters includes FLIR (forward looking infrared). Spicer expects to see an increase in new high-tech equipment.

When asked what the primary concerns are for his division, Spicer said, "Safety. Any mission we go on, safety is always foremost. Landing zones can be a concern with telephone wires, highways, ect. Unlike other types of helicopter service, our missions are launching from a known location and going into the unknown."

The Los Angeles Police Department

The LAPD Air Support Division, begun in 1956, is the second oldest, behind New York.

"We're all here because we love to fly," said Commander Lt. Keith Johnson, who has been in the LAPD Air Support Division for nearly 20 years.

All pilots in the division are sworn officers. They must have five years experience as officers, have three years field experience and already be a pilot before they undergo helicopter training and win their command pilot wings.

Air support units, consisting of an officer pilot and tactical flight officer, cruise the Los Angeles airspace mostly in an assortment of mostly Bell helicopters. There are currently 45 pilots in all, counting supervisors.

"We used to get a lot of our pilots from the Vietnam era, but those people are all retiring or have retired. Most of the pilots we get now are actually out of our tactical flight officer ranks," said Johnson.

For the air support division, the service area is divided into three geographical areas. Also within the Los Angeles area are several other non- LAPD jurisdictions. Regarding crossing some of these jurisdictions, Johnson said, "Frequently both agencies' air units end up responding to the same location and so that obviously poses the threat of a mid- air collision. So one of the things that we do is if we know we're working right on the edge of the county or vice versa, we generally try to get hold of their air unit to make sure they understand where we are."

Said Johnson, "We have pursuits that go all over the county- all over the state actually- from time to time and we would stay with our own pursuit generally."

For this major metropolitan air division, there are several law enforcement roles, but perhaps the main one is to pass along information. "We're a flying black-and-white police car is what we are. But we have 360 degrees and usually a few square miles of vantage point that we can see all at the same time. Obviously officers on the ground don't have that advantage.

"It's a major issue protecting the officers on the ground, in terms of officer safety- so they don't walk into a situation and get blindsided. It also is extremely effective from a tactical standpoint."

Los Angeles has been dubbed, by some media, the pursuit capital of the world. In the case of such chases, Johnson said, "Obviously the helicopter is a vital tool and we've taken on a more pivotal role in recent years, particularly because of the fact that people get hurt in pursuits.

"When the helicopter gets overhead, that really allows the guys on the ground to back off. They don't have to bumperlock people, they don't have to proceed at these breakneck speeds. Once we're overhead, we're not going to lose the suspect," Johnson said. "It's just a matter of time."

Equipment on board includes an infrared system/camera (most effective at night), a high-resolution Song video camera (more for daytime use), a monitor, and a computerized mapping system containing all the street maps of Southern California as well as airport and FAA kinds of maps. In addition, all helicopters are outfitted with the Lo-Jack stolen vehicle recovery system. Johnson said they have been able to recover numerous stolen vehicles with the system.

Another technological advantage cited by Johnson is the radio telephone, which allows confidentiality over the airways. It not only allows air units to call victims and reporting parties back from additional information, but allows them to talk with suspects on occasion. "We actually talk people outside," he said.

Johnson said that at times they have had problems with media helicopters getting in their airspace, but that this has become less the case in recent years, since some guidelines have been agreed upon.

The division has been involved in the arrest of approximately 10,000 felony suspects a year and typically recovers about 500 stolen cars a year. It flies around 18,000 hours every year, is involved in about 600 pursuits a year, and recovers more than a billion dollars in narcotics each year. "It's a big operation," said Johnson. "We feel very strongly that we more than pay for ourselves."

"The guys on the ground would not be comfortable without the helicopter. It really changes their tactics when they don't have the support of the helicopter. It's a huge safety issue."

Bernalillo County (N.M.) Metro Air Support Unit

With a population of 600,000 Bernalillo County is a 1,169 square-mile environment of everything from open mesa to dense national forests. Albuquerque, the main urban area, has a population of 425,000 tucked into 180 square miles of incorporated area.

The Bernalillo County Metropolitan Air Support Unit is a study in interagency teamwork. A joint effort between the Albuquerque Police Department and the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department, air unit teams are always made up of one police officer and one sheriff's deputy. The unit is a cost- effective way for the community to share the service.

Officer Dave Bartram, the unit's one full-time pilot, has been flying since 1970, starting in Vietnam. After 21 years as a patrol officer, Bartram joined the unit at its inception two years ago, when they bought their first helicopter, a 1972 Bell Kiowa OH-58.

Bartram said that at first, citizens complained about the noise of the helicopter, "We've noticed an impact on crime. Citizens are accepting us and the noise. They're realizing that when we're overhead in their neighborhood, there's a law enforcement presence. Now they like what they hear."

Citing some of the advantages of an airborne unit, Bartram said, "You can get over a scene so much quicker. We have the light and the infrared imaging system with a 360-degree scope."

"In a pursuit, we can have the ground units disengage and we can keep an eye on the suspect, removing visual stimulation for the bad guy to run. We just monitor him and see what he does. We try to look ahead to where a suspect is going and have units lay a ground spike belt."

Like the LAPD's Lt. Johnson, Bartram said they have been able to cut down on pursuit- related accidents and said that sometimes a spotlight alone can stop a suspect.

Unit teams are on call 24 hours a day with 16 to 20 hours of actual flight time during a normal work schedule. Two observers - one police officer and one sheriff's deputy- rotate.

Deputy Erik L. Little, of the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department, has been a law enforcement officer for 10 years and has flown as an observer for two years. Little has a fixed- wing license and is working towards earning his helicopter wings.

"City guys are cross- commissioned with the sheriff's department so that they can perform law enforcement functions in the county," he explained.

Bartram and Little said that a civilian contract manager or commander works with a board made up of members of both agencies.

As far as major concerns, outside of crashing and equipment malfunction, Little said, "We got shot at quite a lot but that's not really a concern of ours. It'd be pretty hard to hit an aircraft."

Assignments include some search and rescue and fire department support, but, said Little, "Patrol is our main function- any kind of call that's high risk- pursuits are the main one." He added that visual documentation by the helicopter unit helps to protect agencies from liability.

Little feels that the greatest impact of the air support unit lies in faster response time than ground units, plus the advantage of having a bird' eye view, to direct ground units. "We have the tools like the thermal imager and the spotlight. That's used mainly for the guys on the ground to be able to see what's going on.

"We're like a bird up there. We can see this mouse running around everywhere and we can tell the other birds on the ground how to get this mouse."

Tags: Campus Safety, Agency Profiles, School Resource Officers, Illinois State Police, LAPD, Maryland State Police, Helicopters, Special Assignments


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