Friday, April 13, 2007

San Bernardino's Helicopter Patrol's Helping City, But is it worth it?

San Bernardino's helicopter patrols helping city, but is it worth it?

Download story podcast

10:00 PM PDT on Saturday, April 7, 2007

The Press-Enterprise

The shooting suspect was sprinting flat out down the darkened street. But suddenly he slowed, glancing toward the night sky. Then he dodged into the shadows of an overhanging roof and peeled off a shirt and bulletproof vest.

From 500 feet overhead, San Bernardino police Detective John Vasek noted the location. Ground units could get the evidence later.

The man started running again, climbing fences and dodging backyard dogs. Helicopter pilot Bob Nibecker was right behind him.

Story continues below

Stan Lim / The Press-Enterprise
San Bernardino police Detective John Vasek looks over downtown San Bernardino from the Police Department's helicopter. Vasek is a supporter of the city's fledgling police aviation program.
Finally, the suspect grabbed the top of a gate and heaved, trying to scramble over. He was still hanging there, panting, when officers on the ground caught up.

"He told them, 'I'm done,' " Vasek recalled later. "I can't get away from that helicopter."

As Vasek, an observer in San Bernardino's fledgling police aviation program, recounts such stories, his eyes glow with pride. His superiors say the helicopter makes searches and pursuits more efficient and much safer. It even speeds up routine police work.

San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris first introduced the police air wing in June, and in December the City Council extended the program until the end of the 2008-09 fiscal year.

For just more than $500,000 annually, Riverside-based California Aviation Services provides helicopters and pilots for 25 hours of air support per week. The Police Department sends up its own officers as observers.

Police Chief Mike Billdt calls the airborne teams "force multipliers." A helicopter overhead is a highly effective crime deterrent because criminals on the ground can't be sure whether they're under observation, Billdt says.

And almost always, an airship can reach a crime scene long before ground units arrive.

But as the cash-strapped city seeks resources to prolong a recent drop in its crime rate, some are questioning the expense, particularly when free helicopter service is available from the county Sheriff's Department.

Quickly On Calls

San Bernardino officials are moving forward with plans to hire an additional 40 officers, 14 of them this year.

That's a high priority in a city besieged by violent crime for the past decade. In 2004, Morgan Quitno Press listed San Bernardino as the nation's 16th most dangerous city, and the ranking was 18th in 2005.

Increased police patrols, funded largely by officer overtime, paid off in 2006 with a better than 14 percent reduction in serious crime citywide.

From the first flight in mid-July, through mid-December, San Bernardino's helicopter crews answered 1,671 calls for service, police records show.

That's almost four times the partial count of 454 supplied by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department when it covered the city for a similar period in 2005. Statistics for about 14 percent of that time were lost in a computer glitch.

Rich Lawhead, president of San Bernardino's police union, said one reason for the jump in calls could be that officers know they'll get support when they ask for it.

Story continues below

Pilot Don Belter, left, and San Bernardino police Detective John Vasek take a ride in the Police Department's own helicopter, which Vasek's superiors say makes searches and pursuits more efficient and safer.
The county helicopter, Lawhead said, is assigned to the area and must answer to several agencies. It can't always respond to a San Bernardino call as fast as he would like.

Now, he knows San Bernardino's helicopter -- designated Air One in police dispatches -- will be overhead, carrying an observer who knows the city well.

"A lot of times when you're on a call, they'll have been in that same area," Lawhead said. "They'll remember things, like that there's an old woodshed under the carport you're searching."

Law-enforcement studies give helicopter patrols high marks for effectiveness. According to one estimate by the Los Angeles Police Department, a single helicopter provides a patrol and response capability equivalent to up to 10 patrol cars.

City Councilman Rikke Van Johnson said he's willing to accept some added expense for an air wing that concentrates on San Bernardino.

"Crime is down across the city, and you've got to attribute some of that to the helicopter's presence," he said. "We know it costs more, but the people in our city are worth it. They're worth the best protection we can give them."

But while the statistics appear to favor San Bernardino's new program, skeptics said they want more detailed information comparing Air One to other options.

"We have to be sure we know what we're receiving when we pay for this helicopter" said Robert Rego, president of the Inland Mountain Republican Assembly and a leader in the opposition to Measure Z, a voter-approved tax hike to hire more police and fund crime-prevention programs.

"Is the helicopter program worth what it costs? What is the return on investment, and have we really looked at other alternatives that might give us a better return?"

As a condition of the federal grants underwriting the sheriff's aviation program, the county offers its helicopter teams to city governments for free.

At a recent meeting of the citizen's advisory panel on Measure Z, Bob Evans, vice chairman, pointed out the cost difference and asked whether the city is getting its money's worth.

His questions, Evans said, didn't concern the value of air support.

As a 30-year police veteran, he said he knows how effective a helicopter can be. But, given San Bernardino's other needs, he wonders whether the city can afford to contract for services now.

Evans later met privately with Billdt to discuss the program. He said he had hoped Billdt would provide comparative data for the Sheriff's Department and California Aviation Services, showing response times and services provided.

"They gave me some anecdotal cases where the helicopter has been remarkably successful," he said. "That supports what I believe wholeheartedly. Helicopters are great.

"But are we getting that much better service out of our own ship than we were getting out of the sheriff's helicopter for free? That's something I guess I'll never know."

Reach Chris Richard at 909-806-3076 or


BS Ranch Perspective:

The thought that the Sheriff's Air Ship is "Free" is something that you have to think about for a while. Because I dare to say that there was some strings pulled upon the City Council of Rialto's City, when the time came for the 'Rumor's, that they were going to close the airport, Sheriff Penrod, went to Chief Meyers, and the city admin. and wanted to take over the Patrol of Rialto. I am thinking that they, he did this at the price that he had to move the Sheriff's Departments Air Fleet. The City Administration and the Police Union Fought and fought to keep the Police department rather then the city contracting with the Sheriff Department, for Law Enforcement Patrol Duties.

BS Ranch

No comments: