Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Helicopter anecdotes don't fly

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Coun. Paula Havixbeck, chairwoman of civic protection and community services committee, has good reason to insist that this is not the time to be thinking of a second police helicopter for Winnipeg. She and the rest of city council cannot possibly discern if Air-1 has been worth the expense and, given the trouble to date of keeping pilots, it may take a couple of years before any good cost-benefit analysis can be done on the purchase of the first Colibri.

Police Chief Keith McCaskill on Monday gave a verbal report to the committee, noting that three pilots have come and gone for various reasons within little more than a year of the helicopter's operation. He agreed that talk about a second helicopter, suggested by Tory justice critic Kelvin Goertzen last week, is premature.

The helicopter also has experienced unexpected down time. Last year, it had its motor replaced but still managed to fly 1,000 hours, the operational time the city promised in return for $1.3 million of operating funds from the province. But so far this year, Air-1 is flying only half its expected hours.

Chief McCaskill's verbal report, however, is not a good analysis of the value of the helicopter or the justifications for getting it -- everything from reduced car-chase damage, finding people in need and cutting cruiser response times by freeing up cars in some incidents. Ms. Havixbeck has noted a written review was expected at the helicopter's one-year anniversary. That report is to come in the Winnipeg Police Service's annual report sometime in July, Chief McCaskill said.

Winnipeggers need to know the full operational costs of this $3.5-million eye-in-the-sky, the numbers of each kind of call it was deployed to, the per-incident price in addition to the benefit -- the number of arrests directly attributable to the helicopter's presence.

Chief McCaskill should be able to provide this preliminary detail and people can assess it in the context of a first year when bugs were being worked out. But anecdotal evidence alone cannot be used to justify the expenses of this first helicopter, let alone launch a debate about whether a second ought to be in the air.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 1, 2012 A8

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