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Police Helicopter Costs, Benefits

August 09, 1987

We admire the county auditor-controller's and treasurer's courage when they questioned the value of the county's $1.3-million police helicopter program. They are right. Low-flying, frequent-patrolling police helicopters waste money.

Several recent articles have included statistics from the Orange County Sheriff's Department that are intended to convince the public that police helicopters are essential to saving lives and stopping crime.

We believe that the police helicopter promotional statistics are, for the most part, irrelevant hype. For example: The statistic "helicopters are first on the scene 62% of the time" is pure hype, because the helicopter does not provide any aid or protection, irrespective of when they arrive. They just buzz ineffectively overhead. Police officers in patrol cars give aid and protection, but police car achievements are not promoted.

Helicopter promotional material would be significant if it included available new data, not from the 1960s, that correlates helicopter patrol and crime.

For example, the March helicopter collision reduced Newport's and Costa Mesa's air force from four to two and thereby reduced the patroling. That reduction didn't seem to make any crime difference. It didn't make any crime difference in Santa Monica when they went from two helicopters to none.

Statistics on saving lives should be put into perspective and not just tossed out for their emotional impact. Newport Beach still attempts to justify its helicopters on the basis of saving lives when, in fact, their lifesaving history consists of pulling a girl out of the Upper Bay mud six years ago. There are now 13 helicopters in various cities and county government, and hundreds at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station, enough helicopters to pull someone from the mud once every six years.

The sheriff's promotional data is intended to create an exaggerated psychological need for patrolling helicopters when the real need is small.

Since helicopters cost more than $400 per hour to fly, the county could save millions of dollars by simply using helicopters only for SWAT or lifesaving activities.

MIKE HILFORD

Newport Beach

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