Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Police selective on copter info?

Prof whose work was cited says facts cherry-picked

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An Ontario criminologist says the Winnipeg Police Service cherry-picked aspects of his research about police helicopters to paint a rosier picture about the aircraft's benefits.

University of Western Ontario sociology professor Paul Whitehead, a program-evaluation specialist who has conducted several studies of the costs and benefits associated with police helicopter use, said a report that makes the case for a Winnipeg Police Service aircraft cited his work unevenly.

"The report took all the comments that were positive about the use of a police helicopter and paid little attention to things that were less positive," Whitehead said Monday in an interview, hours after city council's protection and community services committee accepted a helicopter report authored by two Winnipeg police officers.

Det.-Sgt. Dave Dalal and Const. Nick Paulet, who spent six months reviewing the use of police helicopters in Canada, argued an aircraft could increase the efficiency of the Winnipeg Police Service, even though they conceded it's impossible to weigh the costs of the vehicle against its benefits.

While Whitehead agreed there are benefits associated with using police helicopters, he said there also are some detriments -- and insisted the pros and cons actually can be measured in dollars and cents.

Police helicopters are particularly useful at night and make it much easier for police to search rooftops, railroad lines and other areas that are difficult to reach on foot, Whitehead said.

But contrary to the Winnipeg Police Service report, Whitehead said pursuits involving police helicopters actually take longer than conventional searches, as police services aided by aircraft tend to spend more time pursuing suspects.

Since most pursuits last less than four minutes, helicopters also must be in the air at the time of the incident to be effective, he added.

Whitehead said police helicopters can be a useful tool in addition to officers on the ground, if the deployment is co-ordinated closely with other vehicles. But even under ideal conditions, police helicopters do not deter crime and only produce efficiency savings of about $100,000 per 100 hours of flying time, he said.

The returns do not justify the purchase of an inexpensive police helicopter, let alone Winnipeg's proposed $3.5-million tab for procuring an aircraft, equipment and a hangar, he said.

"Quite frankly, I think it's a matter of taste," he said about the use of a police helicopter. "There are benefits, but the returns are not going to equal the costs."

At city hall on Monday, Winnipeg police Chief Keith McCaskill repeated his assertion that a helicopter will allow police to respond to more calls by using an airborne eye to marshal resources on the ground. "When the helicopter is in the air, it will allow us to do things differently," he said.

The Winnipeg Police Service did not compare the $3.5-million capital cost of buying a helicopter or its $1.3-million annual operating expense to other potential equipment purchases or program expenditures, such as adding more officers.

"We're not saying either-or. We're saying they're both important," said McCaskill, who nonetheless suggested it would take more money to add a patrol car to the police-service arsenal than it would to operate a police helicopter. It takes 17 or 18 officers to keep a cruiser on the road for 24 hours, he said, while $1.3 million would only hire about 13 police officers.

Buying a helicopter is a big change that even some officers are questioning, said Const. Paulet, who was able to allay some citizen's concerns.

A police helicopter in Winnipeg would cruise at about 500 metres and hover no lower than about 150 metres, he said. And it would be no noisier overhead than a transit bus going down a street.

The city's helicopter plan will only proceed if the Selinger government agrees to provide new money for its operations. No deal between the city and province has been reached, Mayor Sam Katz said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 12, 2010 B1

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