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Cop chopper 'good use of resources,' report finds

The assessment was made in the absence of any hard data, which MNP said Winnipeg police do not gather or make any effort to measure. (Joe Bryksa / Free Press files)</p></p>

The assessment was made in the absence of any hard data, which MNP said Winnipeg police do not gather or make any effort to measure. (Joe Bryksa / Free Press files)

Winnipeg police should get a second helicopter, even if there isn’t the hard data to support the purchase or the benefits of the one it already has.

That was the conclusion of an independent consulting team hired to measure the cost-benefits of AIR1.

“The police helicopter, with its current operational model, and based on its unique abilities, is a good use of WPS funds,” the report from consulting firm MNP states.

But the assessment, released Friday, was made in the absence of any hard data, which MNP said Winnipeg police do not gather or make any effort to measure.

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Winnipeg police should get a second helicopter, even if there isn’t the hard data to support the purchase or the benefits of the one it already has.

That was the conclusion of an independent consulting team hired to measure the cost-benefits of AIR1.

"The police helicopter, with its current operational model, and based on its unique abilities, is a good use of WPS funds," the report from consulting firm MNP states.

But the assessment, released Friday, was made in the absence of any hard data, which MNP said Winnipeg police do not gather or make any effort to measure.

"Intuitively and anecdotally, the use of AIR1 is a time and resource saver, but the WPS does not consistently and in an easily retrievable fashion, collect and analyze the data to quantitatively prove it," MNP states.

Among MNP’s findings:

● Ninety-nine (99) per cent of the public online respondents and ninety-two (92) per cent of the telephone survey respondents expressed awareness that the WPS was operating a helicopter.

● Sixty-six (66) per cent of the online survey respondents and eighty-one (81) per cent of the telephone survey respondents expressed support for the use of the helicopter.

● Ninety-nine (99) per cent of the public online respondents and ninety-two (92) per cent of the telephone survey respondents expressed awareness that the WPS was operating a helicopter.

● Sixty-six (66) per cent of the online survey respondents and eighty-one (81) per cent of the telephone survey respondents expressed support for the use of the helicopter.

● Sixty (60) per cent of the online respondents and seventy-five (75) per cent of the telephone survey respondents agreed that the helicopter is an efficient use of WPS funding.

● Sixty-three (63) per cent of the online respondents and seventy-six (76) per cent of the telephone survey respondents believe the helicopter is worth it because of the benefits it provides.

● Eighty-four (84) per cent of WPS members either agreed or strongly agreed the costs of the unit are justified by the benefits.

● Seventy-five (75) per cent of sworn officers believe the use of the helicopter reduced their personal safety risk and eighty-eight (88) per cent believe it increased other officers’ safety.

● Fifty-six (56) per cent of online respondents agreed that the police helicopter helped with neighbourhood policing. while, fifty-six (56) per cent agreed that the police helicopter improved their sense of security and safety.

● Sixty-five (65) per cent of telephone survey respondents agreed that the helicopter helped with neighborhood policing; while seventy-three (73) per cent of telephone survey respondents agreed that the police helicopter improved their sense of security and safety.

● Thirty-one (31) per cent and twenty-one (21) per cent of online respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they were disturbed by the noise and light of the police helicopter respectively.

● Six (6) per cent and thirteen (13) per cent of telephone respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that they were disturbed by the noise and light of the police helicopter. Finally,

● Thirty-three (33) per cent of online respondents and twenty-one (21) per cent of telephone respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that the police helicopter causes concern when in the area.

● Eighty-two (82) per cent of the WPS survey respondents agree that the FOU improves the operational efficiency of the Service.

Deputy police chief Gord Perrier met with reporters Friday morning following the release of the MNP report, where he said its findings and recommendations will be reviewed as the service assesses the future of the helicopter unit, formally known as the flight operations unit (FOU), but said the unit will remain in operation until at least the end of 2021.

"We do have some decisions to make as we get closer to the end of 2021 as to what the program may look like in the future."

Perrier said that he and other members of the WPS executive team share MNP’s assessment that the helicopter unit is a valued asset in fighting crime and protecting the community.

The police service engaged consulting firm MNP a year ago on a $132,000 contract to conduct a cost-benefit program review, to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of the police helicopter and determine if the funding is aligned with the WPS strategic and business plan.

There have been repeated questions raised whether AIR1 is worth its annual expense, particularly since it’s often grounded – either because of mechanical problems and regular maintenance or weather. Critics often cited the lack of data to support the value of the helicopter, a conclusion shared by MNP.

The EC120B from Eurocopter Canada cost the WPS $3.5 million when it was purchased in 2010.

Police board chairman Coun. Kevin Klein said he was satisfied with the MNP report, pointing out it concluded it costs less to operate the chopper annually than it costs to staff one patrol car, adding AIR1 leads to more arrests and protects people.

“There’s a lot on the table when we talk about the (chopper) program itself. It could continue as exactly the same format as it is now but lots of other organizations that have had flight operation programs have either added helicopters, changed the machine itself. Those are the discussions we’re certainly going to undertake." – Deputy police chief Gord Perrier

It cost $2,600 per hour to operate the chopper in the air in 2016. When the craft took flight in 2011, operating costs were covered by the provincial government. The new Pallister government initially capped its financial support to $1.7 million annually but then unilaterally abandoned the previous deal and put the costs squarely on the cash-strapped WPS.

MNP said the budget of the helicopter unit could fund 70 per of the cost of a fully-staffed patrol car year-round.

Perrier admitted that some in the community view the AIR1 as "polarizing," adding however that while critics want the unit shut down, the report makes the case for enhancing the work, either through doing more kinds of search and rescue or adding a second chopper better suited to that kind of work.

"There’s a lot on the table when we talk about the (chopper) program itself," Perrier said. "It could continue as exactly the same format as it is now but lots of other organizations that have had flight operation programs have either added helicopters, changed the machine itself. Those are the discussions we’re certainly going to undertake."

Perrier said he’d like to see the unit take part in river and lake rescues, but pointed out it’s not mandated for those assignments and, also, the helicopter itself is not physically capable of the lifting required for those assignments. He said AIR1 is prohibited from flying over large bodies of water, like Lake Winnipeg or Lake Manitoba

Perrier said the chopper’s airframe is due for a detailed inspection and assessment in 2021 to determine if the craft’s frame needs to be overhauled. A preliminary estimate has been set at $605,000, he said, but if the work is needed the question will have to be decided if the money might be better spent on a better chopper more suited to the kind of work he’d like to see the unit sent out on.

MNP said the helicopter model is a poor choice for police work, due to its single-engine construction but said the efficiency of the helicopter team would be improved if a second helicopter is purchased, noting that the police services in Edmonton and Calgary both have two helicopters.

RYAN THORPE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>“A second helicopter would allow for additional shifts to be scheduled to increase the annual flying hours as well,” the report states.

RYAN THORPE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

“A second helicopter would allow for additional shifts to be scheduled to increase the annual flying hours as well,” the report states.

"Purchasing a second helicopter would allow the FOU to significantly reduce the annual number of days that it was not operational due to maintenance," the report states. "A second helicopter would allow for additional shifts to be scheduled to increase the annual flying hours as well."

MNP said the overwhelming perception of AIR1 – inside the WPS and from the general public – was positive, that it contributed to enhanced public safety and protection, and said that perception should not be discounted.

"A community’s perception and WPS members’ belief that the helicopter helps to keep them safe is important but not easy to measure and value. However, it is an important consideration in assessing the effectiveness of AIR1. This ‘social return on investment’ is difficult to define, measure and assess. Even if the use of the helicopter was proven to save a life or prevent an injury, this ‘value’ is immeasurable. The public perception of their safety and security is one of the indicators of the success of a Police Service."

Perrier said the public's perception of AIR1 has improved over the last three years, which he attributed to police deliberately promoting its deployment and involvement in ongoing incidents,

MNP notes that Winnipeg police does not maintain data that would support the wide-spread positive perception of AIR1.

"Determining efficiency involves comparing what is actually produced or performed with what can be achieved with the same consumption of resources. It is the good use of time and energy in a way that does not waste time or energy. The FOU does not currently collect, analyze and report against efficiency measures."

MNP found that Winnipeg police don’t track the helicopter’s success in locating missing persons.

"Intuitively and anecdotally, the use of the helicopter helps to find missing persons faster, but the lack of recorded outcomes of missing person assists limits the ability to quantitatively prove it. The Flight Operations Unit attended a total of one-hundred and seven (107) missing person calls for service or an average of fifteen (15) per year since 2011. The FOU has not tracked how many of their ‘missing person assist’ calls resulted in the successful location of the individual(s)."

Perrier said the data collection shortcomings identified in the report were the result of how police work is conducted and more complex than the 'yes-or-no' answers MDP wanted.

"They asked us a direct question like, how many times did the helicopter contribute to locating a missing person, and we didn't have that answer," Perrier said. "As we looked at those cases, it was actually difficult to answer that question – What does 'locating an individual in a missing person's case' mean. On first blush, it seems very simple."

With files from Tessa Vanderhart

aldo.santin@freepress.mb.ca

Aldo Santin

Aldo Santin
Reporter

Aldo Santin is a veteran newspaper reporter who first carried a pen and notepad in 1978 and joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1986, where he has covered a variety of beats and specialty areas including education, aboriginal issues, urban and downtown development. Santin has been covering city hall since 2013.

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History

Updated on Friday, July 19, 2019 at 2:52 PM CDT: Addds quotes from Deputy police chief Gord Perrier and fact box

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