Running on autopilot: Police drones and campaign promises

Does Winnipeg need two unmanned aerial drones for its police service, as mayoral candidate Gord Steeves is promising? Perhaps we need to take a hard look at the growing pile of gadgets on our municipal wish list, Robert J. Holt writes.

Gord Steeves's approach to public safety a technophile's dream come true

Gord Steeves announced his plan on Wednesday to add two unmanned aerial drones to the Winnipeg Police Service's Flight Operations Unit if he's elected mayor in the Oct. 22 civic election. (CBC)

Few addictions are harder to break than an addiction to technology.

We all know people who struggle with the dependency — eyes glued to their latest smartphone, incapable of unplugging long enough to notice the world around them. Indeed, they even feel moments of raw, visceral panic whenever they find themselves without it for even a minute.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the latest from the campaign trail.

Mere weeks ago, one former city councillor's mayoral ambitions appeared dead on arrival, but through a string of right-wing populist promises, he's gained a foothold in the suburbs and roared back in to contention.

Steeves estimated the cost of adding drones to the city's aerial arsenal to be $70,000 -- a fiscally responsible alternative, he said, to spending $4 million on a second police helicopter. (CBC)
The latest such pledge came Wednesday at a press conference in front of city hall, where GordSteeves announced his plan to add two unmanned aerial drones to the Winnipeg Police Service's Flight Operations Unit.

The candidate was quick to remind voters of his role in the initial purchase of the Eurocopter EC-120 Colibri — that same helicopter which has, due in part to staff shortages, unscheduled maintenance and bad weather, has only flown an average of 2.7 hours per day for the past three years.

While Steeves never wavered in his support for the police whirlybird (registered under the ominous call sign 'C-GAOL'), he explained on Wednesday that "what [a drone purchase] does is allow us, in a very cost-effective and efficient way, to backfill a safety need in our community," as local media reported at the time.

Both during the press conference and in a campaign statement released shortly afterwards, Steeves touted his plan as a fiscally responsible alternative to spending $4 million on a second police helicopter. The cost for adding drones to the city's aerial arsenal is currently estimated at a paltry $70,000.

Based on that comparison, it's hard to argue the point with the candidate. Then again, it's also hard to argue that buying new headphones is a sensible alternative to installing an entire home theatre system, especially when the system you bought last year keeps blowing speakers and you only ever use it to blast the same old mix tape you've had since you were 14.

Chopper touted as 'something that Winnipeg needs'

Of course, all this talk of fiscal responsibility and cost effectiveness for aerial patrols should sound familiar to us by now. Back in the summer of 2009, then-chief of police Keith McCaskill was telling anyone who would listen that a police chopper was "something that Winnipeg needs."

McCaskill pegged the initial price tag at $2.5 million, with annual operating costs of $600,000 after that. And, in one of those "it gets funnier every time you hear it" quotes, he gushed to a local newspaper that "there's really no downside to this thing at all."

Some looked at the chopper more pragmatically. Former deputy chief MennoZacharias has frequently tackled the subject on his blog, offering critiques far more insightful than my own.

At the time, however, local press largely took McCaskill at his word, while Mayor Sam Katz and the bulk of city councillors — Steeves included — lined up to proclaim their support.

One can certainly sympathize: police forces in Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and York region all operated Colibris of their own, and no politician — municipal or otherwise — wants to head into an election year with the "soft on crime" albatross around their neck.

Money well spent?

That the helicopter ultimately cost $3.5 million did little to dampen support for the chopper on city council or among the general public. Nor have the rising annual costs to the province, now in excess of $1.5 million. Nor the fact that Air-1 sees less than three hours of flight time in the average day, or that most of the calls it responds to are disturbances, "suspicious persons" and well-being checks — tasks for which an aerial unit seems entirely ill-suited.

No, for whatever inexplicable reason, many of us still see the Flight Operations Unit as money well spent — so much so that a leading candidate for the mayoralty is prepared to double down on the program, assuring voters that, no really, honest this time, this is the last gadget we'll ever need.

Perhaps it's time that all of us — Mr. Steeves included — take a hard look at ourselves and the growing pile of gadgets on our municipal wish list.

Are we seeing a return on investment from our recent forays into technological excess? Would we be better served by hiring more beat cops, or — dare we dream — adopting a more preventative rather than reactive approach to public safety?

Perhaps it's time we looked up from our screens and noticed that not only are we not in the same neighbourhood we thought we were, we're standing in the middle of the street.

Rob Holt is a freelance writer living in downtown Winnipeg.


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