The Harford County Sheriff’s Officehas a new vehicle that officials say will help in searching for missing people, tracking down criminals and uncovering hidden marijuana-growing operations. And, it comes at no cost to the county.
Sheriff Jesse Bane announced at news conference in the Forest Hill Business Air Park Tuesday his office has received a Bell OH 58 helicopter, dubbed “Eagle 1.”
The Harford County Sheriff’s Office acquired the helicopter at no cost through the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows the secretary of defense to transfer excess equipment to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies for homeland security, according to Bane.
“We are tracking more criminals, risking lives and officers’ safety in the process. Our farmlands and forests are fertile for growing marijuana, and we have critical infrastructure at Conowingo [Dam], Peach Bottom, the proving ground, rails and bridges,” Bane said. “These are but a few of the challenges faced by law enforcement in Harford County and until today, we have met them from the ground.”
He said two deputies are already trained to use the helicopter, and he announced the creation of an aviation unit within the Harford County Sheriff’s Office that will be a part-time obligation deployed on an as-needed basis.
Assignments will include airborne law enforcement, searches for critical missing persons, high-risk calls and surveillances, homeland security and critical infrastructure assessments, marijuana eradication, disaster assessment and recovery and mitigation, Bane said. Medical evacuations will continue to go through the Maryland State Police, he added.
Bane said he estimated the helicopter would be used for 25 flights a year. Calls that were a priority, he said, were for missing children and older adults.
“With our growth we are experiencing an increase in calls for service to locate missing children and elderly adults in wooded areas,” Bane said.
He estimated that the operating cost for the helicopter would be $125,000 a year but it would not cost taxpayers because drug seizures would pay for it.
“It is the drug dealers of Harford County who will fund the total cost, direct and indirect, of our aviation unit,” Bane said, noting the cost will “be shouldered by asset forfeiture.”
Lt. Lee Dunbar of the Harford County Task Force—which handles mid to upper-level drug trafficking, homeland security and vice cases for the Harford County Sheriff’s Office—said the force has been having a “record year.”
While Dunbar said he could not disclose publicly how much the force seizes in assets from drug dealers and organized crime units (though the seizures are audited federally and locally), he said: “[With] the monies that we do have on hand, we can fund the aviation unit… for two years.” That doesn’t take into account what the task force may seize in the future.
Harford County’s aviation unit will assist Maryland State Police and the Havre de Grace, Aberdeen and Bel Air police departments, according to Bane. He said that the drug task force which will fund the helicopter’s operation includes personnel from those agencies.
According to Bane, the sheriff’s office has relied on other jurisdictions for aviation support—mainly Baltimore County and Maryland State Police—and pilots have been unavailable “more and more” or had to turn around and serve their communities in the midst of calls. He said when that happens, he has to deploy all available resources to respond. “We can increase our efficiency when we have air support,” Bane said.
The sheriff’s office is beginning the selection process to determine who will be on its aviation team. Dunbar, who is the watch commander for the unit, said he hopes it will be operational within the first six months of 2014.