Captain Oliver Dismore from the Home Office in England recently announced that all police aviation units in England will soon be nationalized as a way of keeping this valuable police service and containing costs.
"Right now in England, there are over forty police aircraft operating all with different fuel and maintenance contracts. This leads to a high cost," explains Dismore. "We strongly feel that this resource is essential but we have to try and maintain or lower costs and we believe nationalization is the answer." The Home Office hopes that economies of scale will give them more leverage when buying parts and establishing fuel contracts. The entire nationalization is expected to be completed by 2012.
The value of airborne law enforcement has long been proven and recognized by numerous police agencies from round the world. Regardless if it is a pursuit, a search for suspects or missing persons and as a force multiplier, law enforcement aviation is critical to many agencies mission. Despite the value, the past year has seen several airborne law enforcement units in California and most recently, in Newark (NJ) to close. These agencies do not deny the value of a law enforcement aircraft; they are just very hard pressed to survive in today's difficult economy.
This begs the question: Can combining aviation resources still allow us to provide the service yet lower or maintain cost?
The critics of regionalization point out the pitfalls that have doomed previous efforts. How much of a financial share does each agency have to burden? If four agencies participate in a regional airborne law enforcement unit but one agency only uses the unit about once a month, should they be expected to pay 25% of the budget? What about dispatch priorities? If the airborne law enforcement unit is working an active perpetrator search in jurisdiction A and a vehicle pursuit begins in jurisdiction B, who gets priority to use the aircraft? Sadly, what has often been the largest issue and is largely out of the control of the regional airborne unit, is the personality of politics. The regional unit is running fine, the officers on the ground are enjoying excellent support and then politics among elected officials causes one jurisdiction to drop out. The reason is most often a clash of personality rather than financial reasons. One elected official, having a dispute with another about an unrelated issue or around election time, things get very strange.
Obviously, the greatest advantage is cost savings. Spreading out the costs across several municipalities saves money and allows them to still provide the service. The best way to make sure regionalization works is to insure all parties involved know the expectations and limitations of the airborne unit. Have a written agreement that clearly defines response priorities. Obviously, imminent life threats have priority over all else but what about when all four jurisdictions want the aircraft for their Fourth of July Parade and related events. How will the resource be allocated? One way to address the question of an agency using the aircraft sparingly is to have an annual fixed cost that provides for hangar rental, certain scheduled maintenance items, insurance etc. and then each jurisdiction pays per hour if the resource is used. For example if the City police use the aircraft 70% of the time and a rural jurisdiction only uses it 5%, then each agency would pay for only the time the aircraft is used. Obviously, this adds an administrative burden for the regional airborne unit as costs and records must be precisely maintained and documented.
A success story:
Metro Air Support Unit - St Louis
The St. Louis County Police Department has operated an aviation unit since 1971 and the St. Louis City Police started airborne operations in 1996 with a surplus OH58. In 2003, St. Louis City Police were considering shutting down their aviation unit and in addition, St. Louis County drastically cut back airborne operations. Ironically at the same time, the St. Charles County Sheriff's Department was interested in starting an aviation unit. All three agencies were able to sit down and discuss the possibilities of a regional unit. This would help eliminate some of the budget constraints and stop the duplication of effort. In July 2004, the Metro Air Support Unit was formed, with funding and staffing from St. Louis County PD, St. Louis City PD and the St. Charles County Sheriff's Dept. A not for profit foundation was formed as well to assist in funding and building corporate partnerships. The foundation assists in funding equipment that is beyond the scope of the municipal budget.
The regional operation opened the door for Federal and State grants, totaling over 3 million dollars, including the funding for a new MD500E. The Metro Air Support Unit of St. Louis has now been in operation for 5 years and the multi-jurisdictional unit has received a great deal of support from the political forces of all three jurisdictions. The unit now operates six helicopters, 3 MD500Es, 3 OH6s and one Cessna 172. The area covered is 1500 Sq. miles, with a population served of over 1.5 million. As Captain Kurt Frisz of the St. Louis County Police Department and current Airborne Law Enforcement Easter Regional Director states, "the bottom line is that without the regional effort, we would have had to shut down our airborne law enforcement operations like many other jurisdictions."
Obviously, administrations will be challenged to continue to provide exceptional police services with less. By some creative thinking and cooperation, many of these services can be combined in order to save costs yet provide excellent service.