As Valley sprawls, police go airborne
Cities extend number, hours of helicopter patrols

Judi Villa
The Arizona Republic
Sept. 27, 2007 12:00 AM
Someone hit a panic button.

But the first officers to arrive at the west Phoenix business weren't in a patrol car. They were high above in a helicopter, shining a spotlight onto the ground in search of a suspect in a black shirt.

"Nobody's en route, and we're here first," said Paul Apolinar, a Phoenix police pilot.

Thirty seconds passed.

"Go around the corner. There's somebody in a black shirt," Officer Daniel Latham said as he shone a light onto the streets 500 feet below.

"You got 'em," Apolinar said.

It would be another 40 seconds before the patrol car arrived and officers on the ground stopped two suspects.

Faced with urban sprawl, increasing calls for service and a shortage of police officers, law-enforcement agencies are turning to air patrols more often to respond quicker to emergency calls. Officials say helicopters put officers at a scene faster, give them a better chance of spotting a fleeing suspect and reduce the risks to officers and citizens on the ground.

"It's the wave of the future," Apolinar said of the more-prevalent role of helicopters.

"Effectively, we're overhead from 2 miles out," he said. "We're able to get overhead ahead of the patrol officers and increase our chances of apprehending the bad guy."

More eyes in the air

Across the country and even worldwide, the use of police aircraft has become increasingly popular since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with agencies starting up fleets or upgrading their equipment and capabilities.

The aircraft play an invaluable role when it comes to search-and-rescue missions, and also in ensuring that the country's ports, nuclear facilities and other infrastructure are protected on a daily basis, said Dan Schwarzbach, a pilot with the Houston Police Department and president of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association.

"I think it's critical. Any modern city in today's world has to have that," Schwarzbach said.

In the Valley, Phoenix and Mesa police, the state Department of Public Safety and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office all have helicopters.

"People used to think of an air unit as a luxury," said Mesa police Sgt. Sherry Burlingame. "Now it's more of a necessity."

Phoenix police is rebuilding its air fleet and plans to increase its time in the air from 16 to 21 hours a day within the next couple of years. DPS recently resumed flying routine patrols and plans to use aircraft to more frequently target little-patrolled highways statewide.

In Scottsdale, voters authorized the purchase of police helicopters but none have been bought.

Mesa's three helicopters average 12 flight hours a day, answering about 48 calls a day. The average response time to a scene is three times faster than a patrol car - just 54 seconds. Mesa police are looking to expand their air unit, Burlingame said.

In Phoenix last year, helicopters responded to 17,218 calls and assisted in 1,929 arrests, the vast majority for felonies in progress. The city has seven helicopters, with plans to add two more. Their average response time: 2.17 minutes, compared to the city's average response time on the ground of 5.7 minutes for a life-threatening emergency. In some of the city's highest-growth areas, patrol car response times, even for life-threatening emergencies, pushed 8 minutes.

"It helps a lot to get us there quicker," Apolinar said.

Benefits add up

Today's helicopters have spotlights so bright they can make it look like daylight on the ground, infrared devices to spot dangers patrol officers might not be able to see, and even cameras.

"A half-mile to a patrol officer is a long way because he can't see a lot. But because of our airborne perspective here, we can see guys fleeing on foot. We can see people getting in cars," Apolinar said. "We can sit and follow and the car and he won't even know we're around."

There are other benefits, too. Because Valley law-enforcement agencies have enacted stringent pursuit policies in recent years, helicopters have become the way to catch a fleeing motorist without having to chase him on the ground and endanger lives.

And, with speedier response times, helicopters actually can free up patrol officers more quickly to answer other emergency calls. If a helicopter gets overhead and sees nothing is going on, they can cancel the patrol officer.

Officials say the benefits outweigh the hefty price tag. Phoenix's operating budget for its air unit in fiscal year 2008 is $8.4 million. Flying costs an estimated $400 per hour.

"The airplane is a deterrent," said Andy Dobis, a DPS pilot. "If people know that the police are watching them, they act totally different than if the police aren't watching them."

Seeing the 'whole picture'

On a recent morning, Dobis patrolled about 1,000 feet above the Beeline Highway, just outside Payson. White stripes painted onto the shoulder below mark each quarter-mile, to clock speeders.

From the air, Dobis can see over cliffs and around bends. He can spot people tailgating or passing on the emergency shoulder. He can easily pick out who's going too fast. He then can radio for a patrol car to make the actual stop.

At an average speed of 120 mph, Dobis can cover 40 miles of highway in roughly 20 minutes.

"We're just doing what a normal patrol officer would do in a patrol car, but we're doing it from the air," Dobis said. "We can see both sides of the highway and 10 miles up. That's our advantage. . . . We can get the whole picture."

About 90 percent of DPS patrols are in outlying areas, where officers are stretched thin and vast swaths of highways lack routine patrols.

In the coming months, DPS pilots will target highways across the state for special enforcement efforts. The plan works like this: Three pilots fly to an area, and two are dropped off on the ground. The officer in the helicopter then spots violators and directs the other officers to stop them.

"We have rural areas of Arizona that the number of times that stretch of highway gets to see a highway patrolman is relatively small. But there's still speeders on those roads, and there needs to be a presence out there," Dobis said. "They need to know the highway patrol is out there enforcing the laws."

DPS Lt. Jack Johnson, who oversees District 3 in Holbrook, said once people start seeing patrol officers on the ground, they flash their lights to warn other drivers, and the officers have less impact. From the air, officers are "sneakier" and can catch more violators. They also can see the miles of bad passes and driving violations that a patrol officer can't.

"I'd like to have my own airplane up here," Johnson said. "At least people are knowing that we're out there.

"Anywhere they go in the state, they're looking for the bear in the air, and hopefully they're looking at their speedometer too."

The use of aircraft is expected to continue increasing. Some even predict police agencies will, in the future, add unmanned aircraft as well.

"It's an invaluable to a lot of law enforcement," Schwarzbach said. "The officer on the ground and the citizens we serve have a feeling of security when a helicopter is overhead watching them. It's peace of mind."