By Jeremiah McWilliams
The Atlanta Police Department’s small fleet of helicopters is scheduled to return to the air Monday, two weeks after a crash that killed two law enforcement officers.
The incident put a spotlight on the law-enforcement helicopters that crisscross metro Atlanta’s skies, raising questions about how they’re used, what they cost and whether they are worth the risk to officers.
A number of public officials, police officers and law enforcement experts told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that, while helicopters are expensive, they are essential crime-fighting and life-saving tools. They sometimes allow law enforcement agencies to locate, for example, Alzheimer’s patients and missing children faster.
“We’ve found numerous victims like this, and bad guys that we could not have found without the helicopters,” said Lt. Greg Mercier, chief pilot with the Georgia State Patrol. “It’s just a great tool.”
In DeKalb County, the helicopter unit is generally used to respond to priority 1 calls, which include felonies in progress, armed robberies and searches for suspects and missing persons. Gwinnett County and Spalding County have their own helicopters for similar missions.
In Atlanta, the police department’s helicopters fly 500 hours of missions per year — the majority of them short hops of less than an hour — to look for missing people and stolen cars and assist on other calls.
During Atlanta Falcons games, the helicopters occasionally scan downtown neighborhoods and parking lots to deter car break-ins.
Another priority: searching wooded areas for hidden “chop shops,” where stolen cars are sliced up for parts. The APD also plans to work with Atlanta’s Fire Rescue Department to help with rescues from high-rise buildings. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has called the air unit a key part of the city’s crime-suppression efforts.
Atlanta Police Sgt. David Tolleson said he has notched dozens of “catches” from a helicopter. Once, he was searching for a suspect over a thickly wooded area when the aircraft’s forward-looking infrared camera picked up a heat source coming from what appeared to be a tractor-trailer tire.
Then, the heat source flinched. The suspect was hiding in the tire; officers on the ground were a few feet from him but couldn’t find him without the chopper’s help.
“They’re an invaluable tool,” Deputy Police Chief Renee Propes said of the helicopters.
The city spends between $250,000 and $300,000 a year on maintenance for its helicopters, as well as about $70,000 a year on fuel.
The APD’s standard operating procedures for its use of helicopters give priority to distress calls from officers, then robberies in progress, vehicle pursuits, burglaries in progress, foot pursuits and searches for missing children.
The Atlanta police officers who died in the Nov. 3 crash — pilot Richard J. Halford and tactical flight officer Shawn A. Smiley — were searching for a missing 9-year-old child.
Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, said choppers prove their value when tracking carjacking suspects and high-speed chases, as well as when pilots find missing children and elderly people who have wandered away from nursing homes.
“Every very large city like Atlanta should have them available, or have their own,” Rotondo said. “They’re worthwhile. I just keep thinking, if it was my mother or father out there, or a child, I would want all services brought to bear.”
The Georgia State Patrol has an annual budget of about $3 million for its helicopter unit, which logs between 3,100 and 3,500 flight hours a year. About $1.6 million goes to personnel, with the remainder paying for maintenance, parts and fuel.
The state patrol’s 15 helicopters are used to look for prison escapees and suspects running away from traffic stops, as well as tohelp with big drug busts and other arrests. The helicopters can be equipped for hoist rescues and firefighting.
Like several Atlanta helicopters, they are outfitted with forward-looking infrared sensors that home in on body heat, including at night or in densely wooded areas. So far this year, the GSP’s helicopters have flown 241 missions totaling 514 hours to search for missing persons, Mercier said.
The Georgia State Patrol plans to buy two helicopters between one and seven years old to replace aircraft that are at least 30 years old. The department recently bought a newer helicopter for about $2.8 million and has a $4 million budget for the two additional ones, said Col. Mark McDonough, commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Public Safety.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Police Department’s three remaining helicopters are 38, 34 and 10 years old. Like the downed Hughes aircraft, all are on 100-hour schedules of routine maintenance and also scheduled to get annual maintenance service.
The last time the APD got a new chopper was June 2002, when the department purchased a brand-new MD500 E model for $1.4 million.
After the crash earlier this month, there was a two-week moratorium on using the department’s helicopters.
On Friday, Propes said the flying moratorium was intended to help the pilots rather than allow for extra inspections of the helicopters.
“We have a very tight [standard operating procedure],” Propes said. “These guys follow all the FAA regulations in terms of checking the helicopter. They don’t take a helicopter up unless they have checked and re-checked. We are confident our helicopters are well-maintained.”