Erie County Sheriff John Garcia wants to double his department’s helicopter fleet with a new chopper that would cost more than $10 million.
“It’s a matter of safety,” Undersheriff William Cooley told Investigative Post in justifying a new Airbus H135 helicopter that would take two years to build and outfit. “We see an absolute need for a new machine.”
The sheriff’s office boasts that its current helicopter helps nab suspected car thieves and controls traffic at Buffalo Bills games.
The department says that its 22-year-old chopper, often grounded for maintenance and repairs, has saved lives. The department once considered replacing the existing helicopter, but now wants to keep it after buying a new one.
Other police agencies say drones are often better, and cheaper, than helicopters when it comes to catching criminals and keeping folks safe. While police say that drones can’t entirely replace helicopters, agencies in Florida, California, Ohio, Virginia and Alabama are using drones instead of helicopters.
In Cincinnati, the Hamilton County sheriff’s office this year sold its two helicopters and expanded its drone fleet — the sheriff there has called helicopters “flying dinosaurs.”
The sheriff’s office in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, has turned its two helicopters over to the city police department as it has moved toward drones.
The Chula Vista Police Department in California once considered buying a helicopter, but that’s no longer under consideration as the department has bolstered its drone capability to 29 units, which often are first responders to 911 calls.
“The use of drones by law enforcement is one of the best tools for protecting our communities and harnessing the innovation of flight to deliver for the American people,” Chula Vista police chief Roxana Kennedy told the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure last spring.
Before drones became commonplace, police in London, Ontario, dropped a helicopter after Paul Whitehead, a Western University professor emeritus, spent a year researching police helicopters and concluded they’re not worth the money.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to find a savings associated with having a police helicopter to offset all the costs of having a police helicopter,” Whitehead, who published a 2002 paper on police helicopters, told Investigative Post. “And I think it’s going to be very, very difficult for anybody to show that crime rates actually decrease.”
“It’s important to have two helicopters”
State-of-the art police drones can stay aloft for as long as 55 minutes and carry loudspeakers, lights and support payloads as large as 12 pounds. The Erie County sheriff’s office has seven drones, Cooley said, including three that weigh less than .55 pounds and are not sophisticated enough to require registration with the Federal Aviation Administration.
There are four law-enforcement helicopters within range of Buffalo, including aircraft owned by the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, New York State Police, the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Coast Guard. Two, including the Erie County chopper and a Coast Guard helicopter based in Detroit, have hoists that can pluck endangered people to safety. The Coast Guard helicopter is ready around the clock and can reach Buffalo within 90 minutes.
The Niagara County sheriff’s office has five drones in addition to a military surplus helicopter that flies 110 hours annually at a cost of $68,120, according to Niagara County Sheriff Michael Filicetti. That doesn’t include salary for a pilot who also oversees marine, ATV and snowmobile units, he said. A helicopter can see further than a drone and is better for extended vehicle pursuits and searching large areas, the sheriff said.
“My opinion right now, they don’t replace helicopters,” Filicetti said. “I think they augment what we have with our helicopter.”
Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia, who did not respond to an interview request, is a helicopter fan.
“We don’t want innocent people dying and we don’t want our officers getting hurt and dying,” Gramaglia told the Buffalo News in a July story about how the sheriff’s helicopter helped apprehend a pair of suspected car thieves. “It’s a lot safer to get a helicopter to watch overhead while our police cars set up perimeters and catch them on foot.”
Earlier this month, the sheriff’s helicopter helped apprehend suspected car thieves on Interstate I-190. Neither the July bust nor the more recent arrests could have been accomplished without a helicopter, Cooley said.
However, police in Glendale, Arizona, near Phoenix, recently apprehended a carload of suspected car thieves in a stolen KIA, arresting five people with the help of a drone that tracked the car, then the suspects, after the driver fled from a police vehicle on the ground and was stopped at a roadblock.
The sheriff’s office originally planned to sell its existing one-engine helicopter once a new one was acquired, Cooley said, but the sheriff now wants two choppers. Garcia said last spring that replacing the current copter with a similar model would cost $2 million.
The new, more expensive helicopter he wants now could carry more people than the existing chopper, would have two engines and could stay aloft longer, Cooley said.
With a pair of helicopters, Cooley said, the department could stagger maintenance schedules so that at least one chopper would be available. The new helicopter would be able to stay airborne longer than the existing one and could hold more passengers, he said.
“The thought process, talking to our pilots, who really are the experts, is, it’s important to have two helicopters,” Cooley said.
Cooley said that the sheriff’s helicopter here has saved lives, and that the Coast Guard’s helicopter in Detroit isn’t the best option. The closest helicopter, he said, is the best.
“We’ve been involved in numerous search-and-rescue operations that have mitigated the loss of life, in many instances — too numerous to mention, quite frankly,” Cooley said. “But they’ve all been cataloged.”
After the sheriff’s office rejected a request for flight logs and financial records showing how the helicopter has been used and at what cost, saying that such records might endanger lives or compromise investigations, Cooley on Sept. 5 promised to produce the records. Instead of invoices and logs, he sent Investigative Post a summary of costs showing that the department spent more than $404,000 last year and nearly $117,000 so far this year. The summary did not include costs for fuel or hangar space.
The helicopter was airborne for 61 hours between July 1 and Aug. 23 for 50 flights lasting between four minutes and three hours, according to two flight tracking websites. It didn’t leave the ground between mid-April and July 1 — Cooley said it needed maintenance and repairs.
The sheriff’s helicopter has afforded bird’s-eye views of Highmark Stadium, spending nearly nine hours above the stadium on three days in January, monitoring crowds and traffic. The helicopter also was above the stadium on Aug. 12 for a game between the Bills and Indianapolis Colts.
Cooley said that a helicopter can monitor larger areas around the stadium than a drone.
On Aug. 13, the sheriff’s helicopter responded to a catamaran capsized on Lake Erie. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter en route to a Rochester air show to its home base in Detroit had already plucked one person from the water but was low on fuel. The sheriff’s helicopter hovered while a boat pulled a second person from the lake.
Two hours later, the sheriff’s helicopter headed for the Niagara River to help a boat in distress, but a New York State Park Police boat towed the craft to shore.
“It’s really expensive”
Outside Erie County, police are using drones to monitor crowds and traffic, including at this year’s New York State Fair in Syracuse, where state police dispatched drones. In a written response to questions, state police said that drones are cheaper than helicopters and airplanes and allowed police to minimize accidents and reduce traffic congestion.
In Virginia, where police use drones to monitor crowds and traffic, Sgt. Mark Miller of the Virginia Beach Police Department said drones can spot beachgoers suffering from heat exhaustion or revelers throwing chairs from balconies.
Other law enforcement agencies in Virginia have stopped using helicopters, Miller said. His department is one of three in the state that still use helicopters, which can stay in the air longer than drones and do some things, such as monitor a prolonged vehicle chase, that drones cannot, he said.
Each of the department’s copters cost $4.5 million, he said, but the city’s fleet management division, not the police department, pays for repairs, maintenance and fuel.
“If we had to do that ourselves, I’m pretty sure we would not have manned aviation,” Miller said. “We would have drones, but not helicopters.”
In Cincinnati, the decision to sell the sheriff’s two helicopters was a confluence of factors, including a pilot making nearly $100,000 a year who left for the private sector and looming maintenance costs for the department’s two helicopters, said Capt. James Schoonover of the Hamilton County sheriff’s office.
The department was spending as much as $3 million a year on helicopters, Schoonover said. Drones outfitted for police generally cost between $20,000 and $50,000 apiece, he said.
“Really, what it all came down to was money,” Schoonover said. “These drones were able to accomplish 90 percent of what the helicopters could accomplish.”
Are Hamilton County taxpayers less safe since the county sold the sheriff’s helicopters, which were valued at $1 million apiece?
“Absolutely not,” Schoonover answered.
Drones can’t monitor extended vehicle pursuits, Schoonover said. They also can’t lift stranded people to safety, but Hamilton County never had a rescue operation that required a helicopter hoist in more than 20 years, he said.
In Alabama, the Tuscaloosa Sheriff’s Office this year gave its two choppers to the Tuscaloosa Police Department, which now has four helicopters in its fleet and paid nearly $900,000 for a new hangar to shelter them.
“It’s really expensive to maintain and deploy a helicopter,” said Sgt. Eric Bowles of the Tuscaloosa Sheriff’s Office. “You can’t replace a helicopter, but you can get something up in the air faster if it’s in your car.”
In Florida, the Polk County Sheriff’s Department this year spent nearly $2 million on a new helicopter to replace one that was sold for more than $2.4 million. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd praised drones in a 2020 report published by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Police Executive Research Forum, saying that drones found five missing people and helped make 31 arrests in the space of 18 months.
“We are saving tens of thousands of dollars deploying drones as opposed to our piloted agency helicopters,” Judd said in the report. “In many situations, our drones are more versatile and effective than a helicopter.”
Since 2018, police drones in Chula Vista, California have responded to more than 16,000 calls and helped make more than 2,100 arrests, according to the Chula Vista Police Department.
If Chula Vista police needs a helicopter, they call San Diego police or the San Diego sheriff’s office. Chula Vista police considered getting a chopper about 15 years ago, said Sgt. Tony Molina of the Chula Vista Police Department, but that’s no longer being considered.
“Now that we have the drone program, it’s not a topic I would expect to come up again,” Molina said.
Police helicopters spend more time on the ground than in the air and don’t reduce crime, according to Whitehead, the sociology professor emeritus at Western University in Ontario who spent a year studying helicopters in London, Ontario, before the advent of drones. After a one-year funding grant expired, London police gave up their copter, Whitehead said.
“The London Police Services Board considered the results and decided that London probably was not a good candidate to have a police helicopter,” Whitehead said. “London still doesn’t have a police helicopter.”
Minds, Whitehead said, can be closed when it comes to copters for cops.
“Communities and police services and police service boards either do or do not want a helicopter in the first place, and the research doesn’t make any difference to them,” he said.
Not everyone was happy when the Hamilton County sheriff’s office sold its helicopters, Schoonover said, but results win minds.
“There was definitely skepticism in the beginning, as with any change — no one likes change in general,” he said. “As soon as you transition to the new thing and the successes start to happen, and this particular violent criminal is caught, it’s different.”
Funding for a new helicopter in Erie County hasn’t been secured, Cooley said, but all options will be considered.