When the assignment to an airborne law enforcement unit comes, it is usually met with great pride and a sense of achievement. Commonly, applicants to the aviation unit have put in street time, often racking up impressive arrests and experience. Their contributions have not gone unnoticed and now they get their chance at a coveted assignment. Although you still get the adrenaline thrills of doing police work and chasing bad guys, the face-to-face street encounters are a thing of the past and in theory, the chances of a fatal violent encounter go down dramatically.
Unfortunately, for the members of the San Juan Police Department in Puerto Rico and the Rio De Janiero Police Department, the shooting down of their aircraft and the killing of several of their officers while in-flight provided yet another lesson that law enforcement officers can never forget; anything is possible.
A civilian co-pilot of a San Juan municipal police helicopter was attacked by gunmen on Tuesday, May 4, 2010 and died of his wounds the following day at the Río Piedras Medical Center. The co-pilot, Jesús Fernando Quiñones Santiago, was injured along with Municipal Police officer Eduardo Meléndez Alvelo, when gunmen fired at least 31 shots at the helicopter they were riding during a high-speed chase over the San José sector of Río Piedras. Doctors had to remove a bullet lodged in Quiñones Santiago, who was shot in the back. Meléndez Alvelo, who police said had bullet fragments near his armpit, was reportedly in stable condition and recovering at the hospital.
11 people initially were arrested by municipal police in connection with the incident, however, were set free after a San Juan prosecutor found that there was insufficient evidence to charge them. The FBI, as well as state and municipal police, is investigating the incident. Police spokesman Damaris Pereira said the co-pilot and the police officer were hit when they helped pursue a driver after running a traffic stop. Pereira said that as the suspect, José Gutiérrez Santana, was arrested and found with ammunition in his 2008 red Toyota Yaris vehicle, a group of men nearby began firing at the helicopter. Quiñones Santiago and Meléndez Alvelo were wounded by the shots.
The pilot, José Rivera, who was unhurt in the incident, was forced to land in the San José baseball field. Municipal Police officer Shakira Báez, who gave chase and arrested Gutiérrez Santana, was unhurt. Police Homicide Director Lt. José Rivera Alicea said that police found 33 bullet casings from a .223 caliber rifle from where police said the shots had came from. He said that police found munitions in vehicles in the area and detained the 11 people as a result.
Last October, in the Rio incident, drug traffickers shot down a police helicopter in a gun battle between rival gangs killing two officers. Bullets ripped into the helicopter as it hovered over a shoot-out between police and drug traffickers in the Morro dos Macacos, or "Monkey Hill", slum in northern Rio de Janeiro. The pilot was hit in the leg, causing him to lose control and crash. Two officers died, while the co-pilot and three other police officers escaped after the aircraft hit the ground on a football field and burst into flames. The co-pilot and an officer suffered burns and bullet wounds while the other two officers were burned, one seriously, said Mario Sergio Duarte, the head of Rio state's military police. Officials did not know whether the gangs had targeted the helicopter or whether it had been hit by stray bullets but the event underscored security concerns that have dogged Brazil's second-largest city for decades.
Attacks of this magnitude to airborne law enforcement aircraft are thankfully rare. Earlier this year, a Virginia State Police helicopter was struck by seven rounds from a high powered rifle during a search for a perpetrator that had killed eight persons. Fortunately there were no injuries; however a shot did penetrate the helicopters fuel tank forcing it to land. Ironically, the pilot, Sgt. Don Childs, was a former military pilot and had previously been in combat. Childs admitted that when he took a job flying the state's MedFlight helicopter, he didn't expect to face the threat of small-arms fire very often. Sgt Childs realizes he was very lucky. "I have never been in an aircraft, whether in the military or civilian, where the aircraft itself took that many rounds," he said.
In a confidential federal case, an agency's fixed wing was fired upon by persons on the ground. All shots missed. However, all ground threats do not come from the barrel of a gun. Reports of laser attacks of aircraft are continuing to increase, as well as attacks by fireworks. "Just as we preach that complacency kills in the street, airborne law enforcement crews can be no less complacent in the air," remarked one long-time police aviation instructor. "Just because you are not smack in the middle of the action in no way guarantees safety or means you are not in danger," he continued.
Airborne flight crews must contend with the aviation dangers as well as those specific law enforcement threats. The same mindset that applies to responding ground officers must be applied to the aviation response. What is the history of the neighborhood we are responding to? Is it a high activity area with a lot of guns? Has intelligence indicated that drug gangs are heavily armed? What has become abundantly clear is that the more powerful firearms threats that are faced by ground officers are every bit a threat to law enforcement aircraft.
Airborne law enforcement crews must recognize that they are another marked, responding unit and can be an inviting target. This is especially true if the ground units have excellent cover and concealment. The gunman does not see any potential targets on the ground and then a law enforcement aircraft flies by.
No mater what our assignment, the danger is always present. It is our job to remain vigilant and alert and consider all threats to make it home at the end of the day.