Police helicopter under more scrutiny

Plans for Winnipeg police to add a helicopter to its arsenal of crime-fighting tools will come under more scrutiny Monday as councillors vote on whether to approve a plan to buy, equip and staff the aircraft and create a new police unit that will be responsible for its operations.

Plans for Winnipeg police to add a helicopter to their arsenal of crime-fighting tools will come under more scrutiny Monday as councillors vote on a plan to buy, equip and staff the aircraft and create a new unit responsible for its operation.

On Dec. 15, city council agreed to make $3.5 million available to buy the chopper, but now the plan must jump through four important political hoops before the helicopter can become a fixture in Winnipeg's sky.

That process begins Monday as a city hall police oversight committee will decide whether to create a new police unit — dubbed the Flight Operations Unit — and seek bids on contracts to support the chopper's use.

Those tenders will include building a new hangar at the Winnipeg airport and buying tactical equipment for the machine.

In a report made public Friday, police said the helicopter will feature a thermal imaging camera to track suspects from the air by the heat signatures they give off, as well as a spotlight to illuminate areas from above to aid officers conducting searches on the ground.

If the plan is approved on Monday, the proposal must still be approved by the city's executive policy committee, as well as a separate vote from city council as a whole in the coming weeks.

The meetings, including Monday's, are open to the public.

However, the entire helicopter plan still hinges on the province agreeing to contribute an estimated $1.3 million a year towards the operating costs of the chopper.

Support was promised in the government's fall throne speech, but Premier Greg Selinger has said more discussions with police are needed before making any financial commitment.

Could reduce damage to cruisers

Police say in Friday's report that damage to marked cruiser cars cost the service more than $400,000 in 2008. This figure does not include costs to third-party vehicles, property or injuries.

The damage is often caused when police are forced to engage suspects in high-speed pursuits.

"With the helicopter in operation, cruiser cars will have the ability to reduce their high risk driving," the report's authors, Patrol Sgt. Dave Dalal and Const. Nick Paulet said.

"Responding units may be directed to slow down, thereby reducing the risk of injury and damage to both police and citizens."

Prior to tabling their study, Dalal and Paulet spent six months researching the use and effectiveness of helicopters by police in other cities in Canada.

The two officers also say that the helicopter will speed up police response times, and reduce the number of patrol cars at calls where vehicles are currently used to block off areas during investigations.

The helicopter would be in service for about 80 hours a week, the officers said.

A link to the study in its entirety is located at the top right of this story.