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The Recession and LE Aviation

As the United States economy struggles, and notwithstanding the federal government's various programs to help stimulate the economy, there can be no doubt that agency heads and administrators are feeling the heat and pressure to reduce their budgets. Of course, the reduced budgets affect all aspects of law enforcement operations, but budget reductions can have particularly severe implications for airborne law enforcement units. Past history has shown that once a police airborne unit has been disbanded and the assets sold off, it is very rare for the unit to ever be re-established.

In the past year, several agencies have disbanded their aviation units or grounded them until budgets improve. Some recent good news has come out of Kansas. After grounding their helicopter in August, a council member from Topeka, Kansas has proposed re-establishing the aviation unit. According to a copy of the resolution submitted to the city clerk's office, it proposes using Topeka Police Department's asset forfeiture and drug tax stamp violation fund to pay for operating the helicopter unit. The bad news? The resolution only proposes this funding for one year.

There is no doubt that aviation can be expensive. The cost of parts and maintenance can certainly have sticker shock. When sharpening the budget axe, many mayors, council people and administrators place their aim squarely on the shoulders of the airborne law enforcement unit and other higher ticket items. Are there alternatives? Is there other ways to reduce aviation operating costs? Can the airborne law enforcement program be saved?

There are several approaches that many municipalities and agencies have used in the past to help reduce costs. One of the more popular approaches is to form a regional aviation unit. Aviation services might not be required on a daily basis in a particular jurisdiction but when a FLIR or night sun is required, it can literally mean the difference between life and death. Several municipalities joining together can enjoy the benefits of airborne law enforcement services without having the burden of all the costs. The major obstacles to this model are how we do equitably and fairly share the cost?

If agency A utilizes the services of the aviation unit 100 times a year while agency B only uses it 20 times a year, there must be a way to fairly spread out the cost and not simply split it 50/50. Perhaps consider an annual fee to buy in to the regional airborne law enforcement unit and then pay a specific fee for service based on demand. This way each agency could feel comfortable in having the aircraft available but not paying primarily for their neighboring jurisdiction to use it.

Other barriers usually are operational control issues and personnel issues. If two jurisdictions have a major event planned for a weekend, who gets priority to use the aircraft? Additionally, a police chief might not be all too happy to provide personnel for the unit that is rarely in his jurisdiction. Written agreements and mutual understanding can go a long way to help reduce these issues and concerns.

Another way to reduce cost but not eliminate the aviation unit is to apply police management concepts and deploy the resource when it is most needed. Conduct an analysis as to the times the aircraft has the most calls for service, or will likely be most needed and reduce the operating hours. Naturally, the sacrifice is that the resource will not be available at certain times. To cover that possibility, an agency could set-up a call-in procedure that would allow the aviation unit to respond on demand.

A more controversial idea is to actively solicit corporate sponsors. Perhaps a major employer could be persuaded to help support the aviation unit. Some states may have laws in place that specifically prohibit this practice in recognition of conflicts of interests or ethics considerations. Additionally, in these economic times, as bottom lines tighten for all businesses, it might be hard to sell this idea to a corporate sponsor. Another very unpopular idea, particularly in these times, is the passage of a specific tax or the collection of a fee, such as added to car registrations to support specific government programs. Once again, the idea of raising any taxes is sure to be considered carefully.

One agency, thinking out of the box started a public relations campaign with their aviation unit. Doing various community outreach events such as school visits, fairs and community events they generated goodwill and a commitment by their residents. They then asked the community for financial support to help fund their program. The community was very receptive and now helps to partially fund their aviation unit.

Finally, aviation units must sell their value to the budget makers and politicians. We often sell our services in lives saved and there is certainly no way to measure that success. We might also have to translate this value in monetary terms. Use past research to help support your arguments. There have been some academic studies that have shown the economic value of airborne law enforcement. They studied police pursuits, searches etc. and showed their cost effectiveness.

By all measures, the economy will be slow to recover. As municipalities struggle with this recovery, law enforcement will have to rise to the challenge and find creative or unique ways to sustain their services.