To fly or not to fly; that is the police helicopter question

As much as Winnipeg has grown accustomed to its police helicopter, the aircraft still has not earned the status of a permanent fixture within the city.

The police helicopter has not earned the status of a permanent fixture within the city

The province has yet to commence a review of Winnipeg's police helicopter. (Brian Bowman/Twitter)

Generations of Winnipeggers have grown up listening to the sound of railcars rumbling over train tracks — a symphony of screeching brakes, clacking wheels and the harmonic overtones that result from exerting pressure on flattened steel.

This locomotive music has been complemented over the past five years by the overhead thrumming of Air1, the Winnipeg Police Service's helicopter.

According to the police's annual flight operations unit report, the sweet sound of the police's EC120B was most often heard in 2015 over the inner city, North End, Elmwood and Osborne Village.

As much as Winnipeg has grown accustomed to its police helicopter, the aircraft still has not earned the status of a permanent fixture within the city.

That's because there remain questions about whether Air1 is, in fact, the indispensable policing tool that was promised in 2010, when former mayor Sam Katz struck a deal with former premier Greg Selinger to buy and operate what would eventually be called Air1.

The original plan called for the city to buy the vehicle at a cost of $3.5 million and for the province to pay for its operations, which originally stood at $1.2 million a year.

Since then, operating costs have risen. The province paid $1.8 million to keep Air1 in the air in 2015, according to the flight operations report.

The city also faces a repair tab that includes $550,000 for a new infrared camera. The city asked the province for help with that purchase after repair attempts failed, said Amy McGuinness, a spokeswoman for Manitoba Justice Minister Heather Stefanson.

The cost of keeping Air1 in the skies, however, is secondary to the question of whether the helicopter is needed. The original case for the cop-copter was infamously sketchy, as the documents authored in 2009 and 2010 to support its purchase read more like a pitch to city council than a sober-minded discussion of the costs and benefits associated with its use.

For example, the original case for support compared the benefits of police-helicopter operations to those of fixed-wing aircraft surveillance. There was no discussion of what other benefits could be derived from spending $3.5 million on some other capital purchase — or $1.2 million on some other form of police operations.

As well, the work of University of Western Ontario sociology professor Paul Whitehead was cited selectively to include the benefits of police helicopters without mentioning drawbacks.

But that's far in the past. Now, for the first time, the province is preparing to review its funding commitment toward Air1, with an eye to its effectiveness as a policing tool in Winnipeg.

This review was promised by the former Selinger government but is still not underway, McGuinness said Friday. The Pallister government still has to contact some stakeholders to determine the scope of the review, she said.

In the mean time, the police service has a very clear position. According to the flight operations unit report, the aircraft is an indispensable policing tool. 

"Air1 continues to have a dramatic influence on the outcome of calls for service," says the report, which states the helicopter attended 2,162 events in 2015.

"As a direct result of this presence, Air1 was instrumental in identifying/apprehending 347 persons of interest. If it were not for Air1, these apprehensions could not occur at the time, resulting in further investigative resources on the ground to complete the calls for service.

"Of the 347 parties identified to ground resources, 112 parties were taken into custody for criminal offenses at the time due to the support of Air1."

The police maintain it's not up to them to decide whether helicopter operations ought to continue. They've already concluded they would like to keep flying Air1.

"We believe it's a valuable tool. Whether it's an expensive tool, it's for others to decide the cost-benefit analysis," said Bruce Ormiston, the acting deputy chief of operations for the Winnipeg Police Service.

Questions about the necessity of flying a police helicopter are not unique to Winnipeg, he said.

"That's a question that's been asked across North America," he said, noting it's perfectly logical for the question to be asked at a time when many cities are facing a cash crunch.

Ultimately, it's up to politicians to make that call. Since the province has already committed to the operations review, Mayor Brian Bowman, city council and the Winnipeg Police Board all have a rare opportunity to sit this one out, waiting for the Pallister government to decide whether the thrum of helicopter blades remains a part of Winnipeg's soundscape.


Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.