A Helicopter for the Winnipeg Police Part – V

Several years ago the Winnipeg Police Service (read Mayor Katz) decided that Winnipeg needed (read wanted) a helicopter.  At that time  I wrote a series of posts commenting on the decision-making process employed to determine whether the police service should acquire a helicopter,  as well as the nuts and bolts of running a flight operations unit.

Links to the previous posts are listed here:

A Helicopter for the Winnipeg Police – Part I

A Helicopter for the Winnipeg Police – Part II

A Helicopter for the Winnipeg Police Part – III

A Helicopter for the Winnipeg Police Part – IV

Selling Helicopters Not Naming Rights

Can a Police Helicopter Make Pursuits Safer

The Winnipeg Police Service recently issued the 2012  Flight Operations Unit Annual Report.

It is of some interest to note that the Flight Operations Unit is the only unit within the Police Service that issues an in-depth annual report,  separate and apart from the normal Winnipeg Police Service Annual Report.   Perhaps this is a forerunner of other unit annual reports to come.   I’m being facetious of course.

The only reason the Flight Operations Unit issues a stand alone annual report is to justify the initial capital and subsequent  ongoing operational expenditures of the unit.  The real purpose of the report is to demonstrate that the original decision to purchase a helicopter was a good one.

Although I have not dissected the report in detail I have noticed a number of interesting points.

When the helicopter idea was being ‘sold’ to the public,  politicians and police officials talked about the helicopter being in the air 4 to 5 hours a day.  The 2012 reports shows 2.7 hours of flight time per day.

One of the primary reasons originally cited for acquiring a  helicopter,  was  to deal with Winnipeg’s ongoing problem of auto theft.  A helicopter it was argued would be very beneficial in terms of discouraging auto theft and, in cases where cars had been stolen,  tracking stolen vehicles on the road and assisting in the arrest of auto thieves.

In a previous post I argued that if the Police Service operated a helicopter it would only be available to assist in approximately 12% of stolen car chases.  At the time, some questioned my calculations and subsequent estimate.  Turns out I did indeed miscalculated…. by 2%.     In 2012 the police helicopter was available to assist in a total of 5 pursuits which works out to  just under 14% of the total number of car chases that took place.

And what happened to the promise in terms of the positive effect a helicopter would have on auto theft rates in Winnipeg?  In  the last 12 months auto theft has gone up 10%, this during a period that the Flight Operations Unit was up and running.  This comes on the heels of many years of double-digit declines  thanks to the Auto Theft strategy.

And things are not looking better for 2013.  Although the numbers are still small this early in the  year, the rate of auto theft in Winnipeg climbed 23% so far this year when compared to the same period last year.

Also of interest is the cost per “arrest” in which the helicopter played a role.  Based strictly on the operating budget the Unit spent $1,327,950.00 in 2012.  Based on that figure the cost per arrest that the unit  ‘assisted‘ with  is in the range of $7200.00.  If, however, the capital depreciation cost of the  helicopter is factored in then the cost of operating the unit is more in the range of $ 1, 727,590.00 and the cost per arrest jumps to $9300.00. *

Contrast that with the cost and the results generated by the  Warrant Apprehension Unit.  They also get bad guys off the street – not by ‘assisting’  or being in the vicinity but by actually going out into the street, and doing investigations and apprehensions.  The cost of that unit is in the range of $ .8 million and with an arrest rate of approximately 800 per year, the cost per arrest is in the range of $1000.00, a far cry from $9300.00.

Were an additional $1,727,590.00 allocated to the Warrant Apprehension Unit  at $1000.00 a head they could have arrested an additional 1700 criminals.  That would be a somewhat better return on the dollar than the 285 arrests the Flight Operations Unit  ‘assisted’ with.

*  I’m not suggesting that the number of arrests should be the only criteria used to measure the performance of the Unit.  However,  based on the fact that all but one of the anecdotal examples of Unit activities cited in the report involve arrests,  it is obvious that the Winnipeg Police Service sees this as one of the primary, if not the prime function of the Unit.

5 comments on “A Helicopter for the Winnipeg Police Part – V

  1. jamesgjewell says:

    Very interesting post.

    I’ve managed to stay out of the Helicopter debate because I knew people much smarter than me would tackle the issue.

    From what I know, “informed” members of the tax paying public and rank and file officers are not all that supportive due in large part to the numbers you have pointed out in your post.

    On the other hand, we all knew that the Warrant Squad was going to be a sure winner in a Province that leads the Country in several crime categories.

    No shortage of work for them!


  2. SYSOP says:

    In the first year that Air1 operated I monitored at least two occasions where it was used for extended periods of time to simply provide “a long eye” while members of the OC unit attempted to monitor the activities of individuals in this particular case in relation to the Green Brier Inn/Inkster area.

    It was blatantly obvious that it was not to apprehend any suspect, but merely to collect intel and information, which of course does have long term value, but given the cost of more conventional forms of gathering information, against that of using this particular resource.

    It certainly wasn’t an immediate and constructive use when measured in terms of investment particularly when it’s extremely visible in the sky at night due to the strobe lighting. Despite clams of the noise levels it generates falling into the area of “stealth operation” it certainly isn’t silent and can easily be heard by anyone including building residents who have been subjected to extended observation of an area.

    More concerning was that was also being used to clear calls, and not just provide immediate information as regards to the urgency of feet on the ground, rubber on the road policing. Although that certainly is a judgement call it leads into an area that is particularly irksome.

    With the problems and expense of converting ALL WPS communication including “routine uniform division radio traffic” to encryption, the public and the media no longer has a means of monitoring accurately if the routine services they receive are value for money, and if basic resources are being used for an intended purposes, or even necessary.

    While I understand the argument that it was necessary to prevent “the bad guys” from monitoring police activities, there was never any evidence advanced that it was indeed an existing situation, never mind a problem, as well as there being adequate laws in place to deal with any such eventuality. This especially when a limited amount of radio communication channels were already available to be used when circumstances warranted.

    Is it any wonder when it comes to seeking media and public support/value judgements on issues such as the merits attached to the expense of Air1, there can be no level of informed debate, and instead it becomes simply a political issue of taxpayer cost/expense with pro or con advocacy by politicians who have done little to ensure their own ethics and credibility.

    While the current political climate may favour the current political administrative policies because the WPS senior administrators and Union representatives have allowed themselves to be drawn into political gamesmanship, at some point it is likely to end and the costs maintaining Air1, as well a number of other internal “empire building” specialization efforts will end abruptly as the public backlash grows.


  3. Great blog. Keep it up. Not really sure we need a chopper in Wpg. We are not LA.


  4. brett says:

    I just worked some pretty simple math. 3445 calls for svce divided by 983 available hours = 17 minutes per cal. Take out cancellations(which must take SOME time) and that leaves (983/2688)x60= 22 minutes per call(avg)
    seems like they’re counting flybys, or does the average call really only take 22 minutes?

    Thanks again for the Blog.


  5. Jason says:

    This is all great information. I agree with all the math and I think everyone that has commented so far questions the need for the helicopter. The thing is, we’re all preaching to the choir here.

    The helicopter is expensive and intrusive. The city says is necessary and will massage the numbers as needed to make it’s point.

    I’ve written to my city counsellor and to the city via 311. I’m sorry to sound so negative but that helicopter is here to stay.

    The only way I can think of to get rid of it is massive public complaints or someone within the city who both had the ability to nix the program as well as the will. I don’t think we have any of that.


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