Can a Police Helicopter Make Police Pursuits Safer

The short answer is yes, if it gets there on time.

In a recent article the expert on all things related to helicopters and photo radar AKA Winnipeg Sun columnist Tom Brodbeck again painted a picture for us on how peacefully vehicle pursuits in Winnipeg will end once the police Service has its helicopter.

It seems that every time there is a vehicular pursuit in Winnipeg that does not end well someone in the media makes sweeping statement about how this could have been avoided had the Police Service had its helicopter.  Police vehicle pursuits often end in collisions some with tragic consequences.  There is no doubt that with the presence of a helicopter some tragedies might have been avoided but a caveat needs to be attached.  The caveat is:

  • Had the helicopter been airborne at the time of the incident.

With an optimistic projection of 1000 flight hours per year the Winnipeg police helicopter will be airborne an average of 2.73 hours per day, that just under 12% of the time.  It becomes obvious that unless the police can convince auto thieves to only lead police on car chases during the hours the helicopter is in the air, the vast majority of chases will still need to be addressed using conventional methods.

An examination of vehicle pursuit data in Antonio Texas obtained by the San Antonio Express-News under the Texas Public Information Act revealed some interesting facts:

  • The San Antonio Police Department makes every effort to deploy a helicopter to all police pursuits.
  • Half of all chases end in 3 minutes or less.
  • In San Antonio the helicopter is able to assist in about one-third of all police chases.
  • Two thirds of the time the helicopter was either not in the air or tied up on other calls.

By the way, San Antonio has a fleet of four helicopters.

My original estimate that police in Winnipeg might be able to achieve a 12 per cent attendance rate may have been overstated.

The question that needs to be asked is not only how pursuits are ended but rather why they are initiated.  In a recent study titled Police Pursuits in the Age of Innovation and Reform (2008) available at the authors Cynthia Lum and George Fachner concluded that once the decision is made to initiate a pursuit in 72 per cent of the cases the outcome (in terms of how the pursuit ends) is almost entirely out of the hands of police.

This underscores the importance of having a sound pursuit policy that places realistic restrictions on the circumstances under which police will pursue a vehicle.  Secondly it underscores the importance of ensuring the pursuit policy is complied with.

Because police pursuits can result in tragic consequences they should not be undertaken lightly.