Police helicopter review endorses increased flying time, 2nd chopper

An external review of Winnipeg's police helicopter says it is a valuable resource that needs to keep flying.

Air1 enables greater number of arrests when it is involved in pursuits: report

The Air1 police helicopter has been flying since 2011 but has seen a lot of down time for maintenance and staffing, compared to cities with two choppers, says the MNP report. (Winnipeg Police Service)

An external review of Winnipeg's police helicopter says it is a valuable resource that needs to keep flying.

In fact, the city should have two of them, the report from Meyers Norris Penny says.

"Purchasing a second helicopter would allow the [Flight Operations Unit] to significantly reduce the annual number of days that it was not operational due to maintenance," the Report of Findings and Conclusions states.

"The FOU should increase its capability and capacity to spend more time in the air on an annual basis."

MNP was contracted in July 2018 and the Winnipeg Police Service released the findings and final report on Friday.

The helicopter, known as Air1, first took to the skies in 2011. The MNP study examined its service between that year and 2017.

In that time, it flew an average of 933 hours annually and was grounded for 884.5 of 2,526 calendar days due to maintenance, poor weather and staffing reasons, according to the report.

"Assuming the number of maintenance days could be reduced to zero, it would allow an average increase of 65 additional available flying days per year" or 260 flight hours.

Edmonton police have two helicopters and fly an average of 1,600 hours per year, while Calgary police fly their two choppers an average of 2,800 hours per year, the report states. 

MNP could not complete a full cost-benefit analysis as part of the review because the data is not available to quantify the benefits, the report stated.

"Having said that, a community's perception and WPS members' belief that the helicopter helps keep them safe, is important."

The study found Air1 can respond to incidents faster than ground units, enabling safer tracking of suspects. It also found a greater number of arrests are made when an aircraft is involved.

"Anecdotally, the use of the helicopter helps to find missing persons [and] its unique capabilities and proven ability to support operational and investigative service units makes it a good use of WPS resources," the report states.  

Staff in the WPS communications centre said they could dispatch the helicopter in significantly more situations if it was available.

A public survey — 600 people reached by phone and another 1,811 submitted online responses — was also conducted as part of the review. 

  • 56 per cent of online respondents agreed Air1 helped with neighbourhood policing.
  • 56 per cent agreed Air1 improved their sense of security and safety.
  • 65 per cent of telephone survey respondents agreed Air1 helped with neighborhood policing.
  • 73 per cent of telephone survey respondents agreed Air1 improved their sense of security and safety.
  • Overall, 66 per cent of online survey respondents and 81 per cent of the telephone survey respondents expressed support for the use of the helicopter. 

As for 484 WPS officers who were surveyed, 88 per cent of those surveyed believe it increases their safety.

But in some parts of the city, not everyone feels the helicopter increases their sense of safety and security. 

Molly McCracken from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says the helicopter is not seen favourably by all Winnipegers. (Marissa Stevenson)

"I live in, and I work in downtown … and people feel surveyed by the helicopter, it feels intrusive, it's noisy, and we know that it has an effect on racialized communities," said Molly McCracken from the Canada Centre for Policy Alternatives. 

"People feel a bit wary of the helicopter when it comes around, and a bit resentful that they know it's a very expensive piece of equipment, but community centres are falling apart, and can't stay open late nights and weekends, and yet we're flying this fancy piece of machinery." 

The CCPA releases an annual analysis of the city's budget, and McCracken says spending on police services continues to increase, despite the drop in property and violent crimes. 

"[The] most recent budget finds that the police spending is ballooning, it is now a third of all city spending where it used to be about a fifth of all city spending in 2001," said McCracken, who says she'd rather see money funnelled into community services as a way of preventing crime. 

When asked about the prospect of getting a second helicopter, deputy chief Gord Perrier said, 'I don't know ... anything's possible.' (Justin Fraser/CBC)

The review also examined the impact of noise created by Air1 and the value it provides for its expense. Operating costs between 2011 and 2017 have ranged from $1.33 million to $1.93 million per year.

Thirty-one per cent of online respondents said they were disturbed by the noise, another 21 per cent said the spotlight disturbed them.

The number was much lower for telephone respondents, six per cent of which said they were disturbed by noise and 13 per cent of which said they were disturbed by the spotlight.

In the past five years, there have been five or fewer complaints made each year to the WPS about Air1, the review found.

As for value, 63 per cent of online survey respondents and 76 per cent of of those surveyed by phone say the costs of the helicopter are justified by the benefits it provides.

Eighty-two per cent of WPS members agreed Air1 is an efficient use of WPS resources. 

'A lot of work to do'

Deputy chief Gord Perrier said he was pleased with the report and its recommendations but stopped short of saying it justifies the Flight Operations Unit. Instead, he labelled it as "information" to guide future discussions.

"We have a lot of work to do … to make decisions about that program, where that program's going," he said.

"They made some very good recommendations and some guides for us to say, 'We think these are some areas where you can make some enhancements.' So we're going to look at that and we're going to change some of our practices.

"Two helicopters? I don't know. Of course, anything's possible."

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