Winnipeg suffering from helicopter envy

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

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Winnipeg's police department asks taxpayers to consider spending up to $2 million on a new helicopter (not as illustrated)

We're quickly nearing the end of the dog days of what has reportedly been a really bad summer in Winnipeg. I'm told by family that the farmers ditches on the outskirts of the city are full of water as Winnipegers brace for yet another round of rain showers and cool temperatures this week. One issue that is raising the temperature of some city residents is a request by the Winnipeg Police Department to purchase a new helicopter.

Let me first say that I think a police helicopter can be a good thing in terms of catching the bad guys after they've committed their crimes. So too would a fleet of heavily armoured vehicles along side closed circuit tv cameras on every street corner. But that doesn't mean I'd support outright either purchase without balancing them against other equally important city priorities.

However, while police budgets in our urban centres continue to balloon out of control while crime stats drop through the floor, we should ask ourselves if all this investment in what some call "toys for the boys" is really worth it.

The taxpayers of Winnipeg are currently contemplating the purchase of a $2 million helicopter to add one more weapon in the police's arsenal against crime. The idea is not new, in fact, it's an old concept that's being resurrected by the Chief.

Apparently the idea of purchasing a police helicopter came after Winnipeg's Chief of Police visited Edmonton and took a ride on theirs. He was so impressed with what he saw, he dusted off an old proposal and has brought it back for debate. If approved by Council, it would cost the City at least $600,000 per year to operate the flying machine. So far, it has the support of almost every political leader.

I can only imagine what staff in some other city departments must be thinking right about now. "Boy, could we ever use the $600K that will be spent annually to operate this bird to cover the costs of new after school programs for deliquent youth".

Or how about constructing a new skateboard park downtown to give teens a place to go rather than sitting idle contemplating what mischievious things they could do to have "fun." Wishful thinking, as none of those funds will be allocated to crive prevention programs any time soon. After all, we're in the midst of a recession and budgets are tight. At least they are if you're not in the police department.

I couldn't agree more with an editorial that was posted in the Winnipeg Free Press when they said the following:

But look at the evidence of other jurisdictions that have used helicopters. To a degree, the results are mixed: Independent and in-house analyses agree that helicopters are fast on the crime scene -- twice as fast as a cruiser -- and make police at the scene feel safer. There is also general agreement on the "operational efficiencies" of using the eye in the sky, in that a helicopter and its floodlight can help direct officers on the ground and is thought to halt criminals in the act. A police helicopter is not without advantage.

But in terms of cutting crime rates? There is not much evidence to support such a claim or to spend the $1 million to purchase a police chopper, and the $600,000 annually to keep it flying. A 2001 City of Toronto auditor's report on a six-month pilot project indicated that its two helicopters were used in 0.6 per cent of high-priority calls in that period. While the officers interviewed believed a helicopter was of assistance, in 70 per cent of the 190 cases reviewed, police said they would have achieved the same results in the absence of helicopter assistance. The auditor's report said there was no basis to conclude that the helicopters cut crime. In the case of high-speed chases, the chopper's role was insignificant as those events, officers said, are generally over and done before the bird flies.

They go on to state:

The thrum of a helicopter in the sky as a crime unfolds gives police and the public the sense that the walls are closing in on the bad guys. People are comforted at the sight of the "good guys" getting the upper hand. And surveys show strong public support for municipal helicopter policing programs. Much of that, however, is about perception rather than a cool cost evaluation.

Nowhere is there evidence that helicopters reduce the drug trade, clip the toxic effect of organized crime, cut human trafficking or keep guns off the street. These are Winnipeg's pressing crime issues. If there is a pot of money sitting around for increased policing, higher priorities should have dibs on it.

It may not be popular for us to question police spending priorities when people perceive crime as one of the top issues in Winnipeg. However, perception and reality are not always congruent. With every major indicator reporting that crime is on the decrease, city officials should be looking at ways of keeping costs down in police departments, rather than continually issuing their chief with a blank cheque.

I think my former hometown should think long and hard before they invest $2 million+ tax dollars on a crime prevention tool that to date has delivered mixed results. If they do, perhaps there is hope for that new teen skatepark! Check out our new online poll and have your say.

1 Comment

I'd like to see a comparison of a police helicopter's affect on the crime rate versus the same amount spent on officers walking/cycling a beat.

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