In the lead-up to the last civic vote four years ago, it was one of Mayor Sam Katz's bigger re-election goodies.

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This article was published 10/10/2014 (2565 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the lead-up to the last civic vote four years ago, it was one of Mayor Sam Katz's bigger re-election goodies.

A spiffy police helicopter. Outfitted with the latest surveillance technology and quiet enough it wouldn't rile Winnipeggers when it flew over their houses in the middle of the night.

"I am satisfied this will be a phenomenal tool for keeping our citizens safe and also make sure members of the Winnipeg Police Service do not get hurt," Katz said in late 2009 after city council's executive policy committee allocated $3.5 million toward the purchase the helicopter.

But there was a "but" built into that: The purchase would not go ahead unless the Manitoba government agreed to cover the helicopter's annual operating costs, estimated at the time at $1 million to $1.3 million a year.

The Selinger government, facing its own re-election campaign in 2011, reluctantly agreed, including paying the inflationary costs of flying and maintaining the helicopter for as long as there was a city police-helicopter program.

Katz had pushed the province into a corner and won. His only concession -- because the province was paying the program's annual costs, the helicopter could be used by police services outside the city when necessary, such as for a missing-person search.

Four years later, the helicopter has become a familiar sight over Winnipeg -- when it's available.

It only flew 986.2 hours in 2013, or 41 days out of 365.

Obviously, weather plays a big role, but so does pilot staffing and maintenance. Air 1 spent 61 days in the hangar last year. It was also grounded 32 days because of bad weather and 20 because of staff shortages.

Pilot Sgt. Jeff Quail, a police officer since the late 1980s, is the first city officer to be trained to fly Air 1, but he is set to retire soon. A police constable is currently in training to replace Quail. The service also employs two experienced civilian pilots. Four city police officers are trained as technical flight officers. They operate the special thermal imaging camera that allows police to see at night and work its powerful spotlight. They also stay in contact with police on the ground because the pilot is in contact with air traffic control at Winnipeg's airport.

The pair works in tandem, like a married couple, but without bickering over directions.

On patrol over Winnipeg, there's just not enough time for that.

There are no church services on a Tuesday night. No bingos or perogy sales either.

So it stood out in the darkness in an otherwise empty parking lot at the rear of Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral at Main Street and Redwood Avenue.

High above, Air 1's heat-seeking, nighttime infrared camera picked it out like a glistening red tomato on the vine. In the grey-and-white images on the helicopter's camera monitor, its tires and engine were warm, a sign it had recently parked.

Quail and tactical flight officer Const. Clayton Wood say over the headset it's odd the sedan is parked where it is so late at night. It could there for any reason, but at 2 a.m. on a weekday morning, it's worth checking out.

No patrol cars are available to do a spot check, so the Winnipeg Police Service helicopter circles above the church, with Wood keeping the camera fixed on the car to see if its occupants realize they're being watched.

They don't. Not a clue. So Wood activates the helicopter's searchlight. A bright, narrow bluish beam lights up the car. Its headlights switch on immediately. Wood keeps the searchlight on the car as it pulls out of the parking lot and into traffic on Main Street.

The lesson? No one was arrested, but the presence of the helicopter over the city shows if there was something illegal going on, the chance of them getting caught was that much greater because of the helicopter. By how much is difficult to measure, but it's there just the same.

Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press files
Then Winnipeg police Chief Keith McCaskill at the unveiling Air 1 in December 2010.

Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press files Then Winnipeg police Chief Keith McCaskill at the unveiling Air 1 in December 2010.

In other words, police say they are more effective at increasing the likelihood of capturing and arresting suspects with a helicopter than without. If you're a bad guy and the helicopter's thermal imaging camera sees you, you're toast.

Police also say some research has shown a helicopter can be equivalent to 12 ground units in the amount of calls it can attend.

"By capturing somebody at scene, it saves tons of money and time in investigative hours to complete that call," flight operations unit Insp. Mike Herman says. "People probably wouldn't appreciate the man-hours to close a call-out and to later locate all the parties. If the helicopter is there and catches somebody fleeing and can track it just to isolate them to be interviewed, sometimes that saves a lot of investigative hours on the back end."

Herman says that's due in part to the ever-increasing familiarity and co-ordination between officers on the ground and the helicopter crews.

The helicopter is also handling more incidents. Last year, the helicopter saw 2,793 calls, up from 1,780 in 2011, leading to the capture or arrest of about 200 people. "It really changes the game," Wood said of the helicopter's increasing use, now well into its fourth year of operations. "I think the more that we're out there, general patrol officers will see the benefits."

 

Air 1 has had an impact on the further decline of high-speed police pursuits in the city, the stolen-car capital of Canada a decade ago.

 

The province brought in mandatory ignition immobilizers in 2007 in an effort to reduce the high number of vehicle thefts and police chases. That and tougher enforcement, such as more stringent curfews, saw car thefts plummet. In 2006, police reported 8,999 vehicle thefts. That number dropped to 2,136 in 2013.

Now, if a patrol unit calls in a chase, the helicopter -- if it's airborne -- responds in seconds. Once it has the chased vehicle in sight, the camera locks on. Police on the ground can then follow at a safer, slower speed. The camera and spotlight are both operated by the flight officer while the pilot focuses on keeping the helicopter in the air.

"We take it (the chase) over," Wood says. "We direct the cruiser cars on the ground to stop pursuing and then we begin observing the vehicle."

In a perfect world, the driver would no longer see any flashing lights behind him and slow down. In the real world, that rarely happens, and the chased vehicle heads to where it can be dumped and the driver and any occupants can flee on foot. Still, because the helicopter is now watching them, their chance of escape is slim.

"They won't necessarily know that we're watching them do all this," Wood says. "We're able to direct (officers) to come into the area and arrest that person."

What the helicopter crew can also do is direct officers to get in front of the chased car, where they can put a device on the road to puncture its tires.

"Every time that there's a pursuit being voiced, and we have enough fuel to get to that area, we're going," Wood said. "It's a main priority. And we like catching bad guys."

In the same vein, the helicopter also watches from above when officers pull over a car for a vehicle check, or when a lone officer and a police service dog are tracking down a suspect. It provides another set of eyes in what could quickly turn to a volatile situation.

"Just the mere fact of putting the spotlight down, people in the vehicle below change their behaviour right away because they realize the police are above them," Herman says.

 

What sometimes gets overlooked is the role of the helicopter in domestic calls, the most frequent call to police.

 

Last year, police handled 14,617 domestic-violence events out of a total of 185,837 calls for service.

Domestic calls are also the most unpredictable for police. Emotions run high, and the threat of violence is never far. Many domestic calls involve alcohol.

When it's in the air and because of its speed, Air 1 is now usually the first unit on the scene, albeit above, as it can cross the city in about three minutes. Air 1 doesn't just respond to calls when a helicopter is needed -- it responds to all calls just like a police car, just like it was intended when Katz went cup-in-hand to the province.

With its night infrared camera, the helicopter unit can watch to see if anyone leaves the scene, and direct officers on the ground as they close in on the suspect. The camera is so accurate, it can pick out a guy casually walking down a street smoking a cigarette.

"We hold that address until general patrol arrive," Wood says. "But usually, when police are called, people don't want to stick around. If we're there and we see him, we got him. He's not going to get away from us."

Besides increasing the chance of an arrest, the helicopter saves valuable time for officers on the ground. They don't have to conduct a search themselves or tie up other units. They also don't have get a warrant for that suspect's arrest if a search comes up empty. That frees up court resources.

"At the end of the day, we're saving some money and some time," Wood says.

 

When comparing Air 1's performance against Edmonton and Calgary -- both fly two police helicopters -- Winnipeg comes out favourably with its 2,793 calls for service in 2013, Herman said.

 

"It can't be divided by two, but we're not far behind their combined units," he says.

The Calgary police service's helicopter unit responded to 4,887 calls, and the Edmonton helicopter unit handled a similar number.

From the church, Quail takes the helicopter to its next call, a woman apparently in distress on the south Perimeter Highway at Pembina. It arrives in less than a minute. Despite a wide sweep or circle of the area -- police call it an "orbit"-- there's no trace of the woman, or anyone else walking on the highway.

Other calls include a report of gun in the city's North End and vehicles racing in a parking lot. Police on the ground responded to both.

After refuelling at the airport, Quail and Wood help in a search over Point Douglas for a man who stabbed someone for their cellphone. The injury was not serious.

Officers on the ground are doing a search for the culprit along the Red River south of the Redwood Bridge. The helicopter's infrared camera scans a park and the riverbank for any signs of body heat and detects something under some bushes.

Turns out it was a couple of guys sleeping.

Quail suddenly calls off the search when a creeping fog bank is spotted just west of the airport, where Air 1 is based.

"We gotta go," Quail says, adding any more time in the air means Air 1 won't be able to land where it's supposed to, as the fog will soon envelope the airport.

Within minutes Air 1 is on the ground. A 12-hour overnight shift is grounded because of bad weather.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca