Selling Helicopters Not Naming Rights

In some American cities, city bureaucrats are not selling the naming rights to their police helicopter; instead they are selling the helicopters.   The Colorado Springs Police Department, for example, is selling its two Bell Helicopters for $350,000 each. 

A number of other police departments, including Tulsa Oklahoma, Oakland, San Bernardino and Corona in California, have either grounded or eliminated their helicopter units.   

The reason cited in all the above mentioned cases is budget constraints.   When it comes down to boots on the ground as opposed to an ‘eye in the sky’, these American police agencies are choosing the boots. 

Winnipeg being flush with money, and having fully stocked libraries, no potholes, a fine rapid transit system etc. is bucking the trend.   Up to this point the city has made the purchase of a helicopter contingent on the Province picking up the operating cost estimated to be in the range of a million dollars a year.

A Helicopter for the Winnipeg Police – Part 4

When I  wrote Part 3 I did not anticipate a need to write a Part 4.  

I wasn’t operating under the naïve assumption that anything anyone said on the issue would reverse a decision that had already been made.  I was confident ‘the cat was already in the bag’.   

I did, however, believe that, as the mayor has a majority on council to support his position, just as a matter of process the $75,000.00 Winnipeg Police Service Helicopter Report would be made available to all the decision makers prior to the vote.  Such a move could have been made to look like a gesture of openness and transparency.  The release of the report, 6 months in the making if it contains all the required information, could have quelled the debate.  It would have answered all those unanswered questions and removed the need to simply ‘trust the experts’.      

So what is the rationale behind the $75,000.00 report being kept under wraps until sometime in the New Year?  Here are two possible scenarios:  

Scenario 1:  That the report is so woefully lacking in terms of addressing the cost/benefit aspect of the helicopter acquisition the mayor would be embarrassed to stake his reputation in support of the helicopter on the document.  The passage of a few weeks or months will ensure that this issue will have moved to the backburner in the minds of most Winnipeggers. When the report is made public most will treat it as old news.     

Number 2.  That the report is woefully incomplete and the additional time period from now until its release will be used to shore up its inadequacies so as to not embarrass the decision makers (i.e. those who had access to the report) in terms of the basis on which they made their decision.     

We may never know the answer or reasoning behind the delay in releasing the report.  If, however, we were in a position to compare the final report when it is released in 2010 to the version of the report the key decision makers no doubt had access to in November of 2009,  the question about the delay in its release might be answered. 

One last point about the decision making process on this issue centers on the council debate of the issue on December 15th.  (I cannot quote from Council Hansard as its publication is 6 weeks behind).  As I understand it, several councilors resorted to emotional and anecdotal arguments in support of their position, specifically, the death of Mr. Zdzislaw Andrzejczak.  The circumstance under which he died  is a tragedy in the first magnitude.  To attempt to insert that tragic situation into the debate without factual basis demonstrates that the councilors in question are perhaps true politicians.  It also exposes flaws in their decision making processes.  

The mayor, behaving a lot like a politician (which he originally claimed he was not), attempted to walk a very fine line on this issue.  On one hand, he agreed with the councilors’ conclusions and then in the next breath, conveniently distanced himself. 

Perhaps it’s time that the debate at the civic level be raised a notch or two.  If the debate contained more facts (what they know) as opposed to supposition (what they think they know) we might all be better off.  One thing is certain, fewer words would be used but the taxpayers would have a better understanding of what is really happening.  

One can only wonder at the questions the other $428 million in capital spending would have raised had it been subjected to closer scrutiny.  Astute parliamentarians have been known to insert red herrings into omnibus bills to divert attention away from the more substantive aspects of a bill.  Was the last minute introduction of the police helicopter a red herring designed to ensure that the remainder of the capital budget slid through the system largely unnoticed like ‘…. though a goose’ as one councilor likes to say?

A Helicopter for the Winnipeg Police – Part 3

Part 3

Parts 1 and 2 likely conveyed a hint of cynicism.  Any cynicism would be based on an examination of various documents:  specifically, the most recently available Winnipeg Police Business Plan and the recently submitted Capital Budget request.  Neither mentions a helicopter which might suggest that acquiring one is a ‘Johnny come lately’ idea.  

Based on media reports, it would appear that acquiring a helicopter was not high on the minds of anyone – not the mayor, the police service, nor the province – until the idea was refloated by the Winnipeg Sun about a year ago.  Was there a memo somewhere that  decisions re police tactics and approaches now come under the umbrella of the Winnipeg Sun?!  

Be that as it may, at least according to newspaper reports, a Sun reporter brought up the topic with the police service a few months later and they subsequently agreed to study the issue. 

Could it be that the Sun’s giddiness about a helicopter is related to a desire for naming rights?  ‘Sun 1’ has a nice ring to it and goes well with the ‘midnight sun’ feature most police helicopters are equipped with.  Perhaps the mayor’s ‘put your name on a piece of Winnipeg’ campaign is about to pay off.  

The study of the issue by police started some 10 months ago.  The report generated by that study has not been shared publicly.  Perhaps the mayor has a copy, but it’s probably too complicated for the tax paying masses to comprehend. 

What the Report Most Likely Contains 

One can only guess at what is contained in the report.  Probably fairly precise figures as to the cost of purchasing a helicopter together with the cost of the special equipment required in order for a helicopter to be useful in an urban setting.  It may outline additional costs relating to leasing hangar space.  Appropriate housing space is critical if the helicopter is to meet the “it can be in the air in a matter of minutes” criteria expressed by the Winnipeg Police Service, especially on those minus 30 degree days.  Suffice it to say the purchase and storage costs are the easiest to estimate and will be in the report.  

Based on the experience of other police departments, the operating costs can also be determined with a high degree of precision.  A figure for salary costs (pilot and spotter), plus fuel, maintenance, insurance etc., can all be plugged into the costing formula.  

Determining the cost side is the easy part.  It’s determining the benefits side that requires greater discussion and presents more challenges.    

The Report will no doubt contain operational performance information from other police departments such as Edmonton and Calgary listing total flight hours, response times, vehicle pursuits and foot chases managed, as well as the number of arrests directly attributable to the presence of the helicopter.   And by the way, Winnipeg must be looking at some kind of ‘super’ whirlybird as, according to the Winnipeg Police, it’s expected to be in the air some “4 to 5 hours a day”.  That is actually quite amazing: the Edmonton police helicopter, for example, had an all time high of 1150 flight hours in 2007 which  equates to 3.15 hours of flight time when averaged over 365 days.  There is a limit to how many hours a year a helicopter can be flown from a technical maintenance and safety standpoint.  The only way to achieve the suggested four to five hours a day would be to restrict the helicopter to only flying between 230 and 287 days a year.  

Without questioning the validity of the figures from other police agencies the definition of the terms being used is important.  One must remember that when new programs, or equipment acquisitions (particularly expensive ones as in this case) are being evaluated, the definition of terms such as ‘arrest directly attributable to’ becomes important in terms of evaluating the actual role played by the new technology or approach that is under study.    

The report, in addition, will no doubt include one of the mayor’s favorite lines of reasoning about how in terms of efficiency a helicopter on the ground is the equivalent to a large number of police officers on the ground.  A study conducted by KPMG pegged that figure at 15 two-person units.  That’s a ratio of 30:1 – even higher than the 18:1 ratio the mayor talked about.   

What the Report Should Contain 

The report should reflect the realities of policing in Winnipeg with the ultimate decision being based on a careful examination of the intended use of a helicopter.  

This would involve preparing a list of all the call types (situations and scenarios) to which a helicopter would be most likely dispatched. 

A review of historic calls for service data would determine the frequency of the types of calls identified for helicopter dispatch.  (Such an analysis should be mandatory in any event to determine when most of those calls occur so as to best determine during which hours of the day a helicopter should be deployed.)  Once those data are available the following questions need to be answered: 

  • How many calls identified for helicopter dispatch ( vehicle pursuits, pursuits of suspects on foot,  and of course those other examples cited – putting  snipers on roofs, locating lost elderly people in the Assiniboine forest) occur in Winnipeg on an annual basis; 

 

  • How many of those calls occur during the proposed helicopter flight hours; 

 

  • In what percentage of cases would the presence of a helicopter make an appreciable difference in terms of a successful conclusion to the call for service/incident? 

 

Only once those numbers have been determined, can the cost per incident of helicopter usage be established.  It’s simple mathematics. 

Even that step is fairly basic compared to establishing the benefits.  Benefits come in the form of either real savings or opportunity savings.  ‘Savings’ in this context are not usually calculated in terms of millions of dollars that can be removed from the police budget; rather, they are primarily in the form of opportunity savings.  Opportunity savings are defined as savings in terms of freeing up resources to do other things because of the deployment of a helicopter. 

Consider the scenario of a helicopter being dispatched to do a flyover over of a ‘brawl’ that involves a large number of brawlers.  (This is an example given by the Winnipeg Police although no media reporting of brawls comes to mind.)   Further, suppose the helicopter crew were to determine that it was actually a fight between two or three people as opposed to a brawl involving a large number of people and therefore less likely to spin out of control or require a large police presence.  In such a case the patrol units dispatched to the event could be diverted to other activities, thereby creating an opportunity saving.  In other words, instead of wasting their time driving to a non-existent brawl they could perform other policing functions.  Opportunity savings, if properly invested, can enhance efficiency and effectiveness.  

The report should address all potential opportunity-saving scenarios and once those are quantified, the next step would be to address the issue of how those ‘savings’ would be invested.  Unless those savings can be directed into specific areas of police operations and used to translate operational activities into tangible outcomes (such as a reduction in response times, the overall crime rate, or a reduction in crime rate related to specific crimes, i.e. residential break in or non-commercial robberies which are currently on the rise in Winnipeg), the savings would be meaningless.  They become nothing more than paper tigers in support of a weak argument.  

Once the capital and operational costs, the per-call cost, and the question of how the opportunity savings will be invested has been determined, politicians can start wrapping their heads around the issue and intelligently address the appropriate question, that is, do the Winnipeg Police need a helicopter vs. the want aspect of the question. 

The following questions need to be answered by our politicians:  Can the per incident cost of having a helicopter be justified?  Are the opportunity savings real, and have they been presented in the form of evidence based outcomes that are measureable?  Lastly, if the police service were given 1 to 1.5 million dollars of new money annually with the understanding it was to be applied to the most effective and most efficient means of preventing crime, reducing crime, and enhancing community safety, would they then use it to purchase a helicopter?

A Helicopter for the Winnipeg Police – Part 2

Part 2 

In the early 1960’s Mick Jagger and Keith Richard wrote, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you find you get what you need”.  Although the words were written some 50 years ago, one can find some relevance to the current argument about whether or not police in Winnipeg need a helicopter, serving as they do, to underscore the difference between wants and needs. 

At a personal level the utilization of our own resources gives us the freedom to indulge ourselves in terms of what we want.  They are our resources, not public resources and the individual is the ultimate decision maker on how those resources should be spent or allocated. 

In the public realm the expenditure of public monies must involve a careful examination of ‘wants’ and ‘needs’.  In terms of Winnipeg, should the police feel that they currently are not able to fulfill their mandate unless they have the use of a helicopter, then they may be able to make the argument that they ‘need’ a helicopter.  If, on the other hand, they are executing the fulfillment of their mandate and a helicopter would simply enhance their ability to do so, then it becomes a ‘want’ versus a need. 

At both the individual and organizational level, things we want are usually justified on an emotional basis and supported by anecdotes.  Needs on the other hand are justified based on logic, reason and factual proof.   Phrases  like “it would be a huge benefit” or “it could be used to locate missing elderly people in Assiniboine Forest” or “ it’s the right thing to do” and even “it’s as good as 18 officers on the ground;” and “it could be used to put a sniper on a roof” do not reflect deep thought from our deep thinkers. 

Where is the beef?  Where is the report being prepared by the Winnipeg Police Service, the report that was supposed to be released months ago?   

Things that are asked for because they are needed are backed by factual information that can be used to reach a logical conclusion and justify the decision made.    One can only hope that the police helicopter report will be brought to bear before the funding decision is made. 

It is the role of the police to prove the effectiveness of helicopters to those who control the purse strings.  And the proof should consist of more than simple anecdotes from police agencies that have a helicopter or companies trying to sell helicopters.  It should consist of more than just examples of things a helicopter could be used for.  The proof needs to be in the form of outcomes, end results that can be attributed to a helicopter.  Results must be evidence based. 

Politicians must be prepared to ask the pertinent and at times tough questions.  We need politicians who are prepared to be objective and who insist on seeing the proof even if they personally support a proposal.  What we need are politicians who are willing to determine objectively whether a helicopter is a ‘want ‘or a ‘need’.  That is their fiduciary responsibility when spending taxpayers’ public dollars.      

If any civic department comes before their Standing Committee or Executive Policy Committee (EPC) and is able to prove that in order to fulfill their mandate (which is set by council), they require additional or different resources or policies, the decision makers have three choices:  fund the request or approve the policy change being sought; change the mandate; or, allow the department to flounder knowing they will be unable to fulfil their mandate with their existing resources or under existing polices. 

Leaving funding for a helicopter out of the first draft of the capital budget may mean that the mayor and EPC have decided it’s a want and not a need.  On the other hand it may simply be an astute political move.   From a strategic standpoint, by not including the funding, the mayor and EPC provide themselves with an opportunity to gauge the response on the issue without incurring any political heat or backlash.  The process provides for enough wiggle room for helicopter funding to be added later in the process.   It’s always easier to add something to a draft budget than to remove something.   Anything removed from a budget, even a draft, is seen as a promise broken.  Anything added is seen as being responsive to the will of supporters.

If logic and reason prevail, the decision will be based on facts.  If  ‘we want what Calgary has or what Edmonton has’  is the mentality that prevails, don’t be surprised to see funding for a whirlybird in the budget when it’s finalized in December  – with or without a formal report on the study conducted by police. 

The facts might only confuse the issue.

A Helicopter for the Winnipeg Police – Part 1

The Players 

All the usual players are lined up in their starting positions.  The mayor has let it be known that he thinks Winnipeg needs a whirlybird.  After all, he had a conversation with a police officer from Alberta who told him that a helicopter in the air is as good as 18 police officers on the ground.  Convincing argument?  This is also another opportunity for the mayor to “deliver” something paid for by others, an area in which he’s demonstrated a certain amount of talent.  

 The Chief of Police, taking his lead from the mayor, concurs.  He even went to Alberta, took a ride, and liked it.  It would seem that, unlike the photo radar issue where the mayors message was not getting through to the Police Service, this is one of those issues where the directive has been received and the chief has the song book open at the right page.  

For the official opposition it’s a ‘no brainer’:  if they support the concept and it happens then they will be able to claim part of the credit.  If it doesn’t happen, then it serves to differentiate their position from that of the government.  The helicopter issue along with photo radar could be the first plank in the policing and law and order platform for the next election. The Provincial Conservatives are on side. 

The Winnipeg Sun is gleeful at the prospect of a police helicopter. 

Some civic politicians, sensing votes to be had, are lining up behind the Mayor.  

It’s almost a perfect storm.  

Why almost?   Because the Minister of Justice and Attorney General who would need to convince his  provincial colleagues that this would be a good expenditure of tax dollars has not weighed in yet.    

Could it be that he is the only decision maker in this equation that will actually gather the facts and make a rational as opposed to a political decision on this matter? 

In policing and other fields of public service delivery, there are times when political ‘wants’ trump operational ‘needs’.  In current times it seems that political decisions are made and then studies on the operational aspects of the issue are ordered to prop up the reigning political position.  

That would appear to be the case on the Winnipeg police helicopter question.  

Any bets that the Winnipeg Police examination of the issue will come out in support of the mayor’s  position?

Part 2 will examine the difference between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ as they relate to public policy issues. 

Part 3 will look at the process that the Winnipeg Police Service should follow to determine if they ‘need’ a helicopter.