Houston PD’s Aviation Unit Grapples with Shift To Dispatch

 - September 2, 2012, 4:15 AM
Houston police helicopters fly sparingly under the new dispatch model.

Houston Police officer Ray Hunt thinks a department helicopter saved his life. He was chasing a parole violator into the woods at night. A police helicopter kept the suspect, armed with a TEC-9 submachine pistol, pinned down and lit up until Hunt and fellow officers could subdue and disarm him. Without the helicopter “he would have killed us when we walked into those woods,” Hunt said.

A 23-year veteran of the force, Hunt is currently president of the Houston Police Officers Union and a vocal critic of the department’s move last year to shift its air support division from patrol, covering the skies of Houston nearly 24/7 with at least one and sometimes two or three helicopters airborne, to dispatch mode, flying an estimated three hours or less a day. Hunt and the department declined to release actual flight numbers under the new construct, citing security concerns. “I can tell you it is substantially less [now],” Hunt said. HPD operates the second largest municipal police helicopter unit in the U.S. (behind only Los Angeles) and it was formed 42 years ago.

AIN called the Houston Police Department (HPD) but was unable to reach the head of air support or the chief for comment. Chief Charles McClelland previously said the shift to dispatch was prompted by rising fuel prices and overall budget constraints–HPD’s budget has been cut by $40 million–and he denied that it would have any impact on public safety.

Since the shift to dispatch, Hunt asserts, the department has lost one pilot and four observers, but he says staffing remains adequate to fly at least 18 hours a day. “From our standpoint, it is an officer safety issue. From the chief’s standpoint, it is a finance issue.”

McClelland said last year that the department saves $600 an hour in combined fuel and maintenance expense when one of its MD500s is on the ground. Hunt thinks these cost savings are insignificant when compared with the advantages patrol helicopters give the city’s 5,200-strong police force. “If a helicopter prevents one criminal from plowing into a citizen, well, all the money in the world can’t compensate for that,” Hunt said.

Delayed Response Time

Under the current dispatch structure, it takes a helicopter 15 minutes or longer to arrive on scene after receiving a call for assistance, Hunt said. Helicopters are launched from a central locale, the department’s heliport in South Houston at Hobby Airport. The net impact of this lag, Hunt said, is that often the bad guys get away. “Our tactical teams used to use helicopters to surveil burglary and robbery suspects. Now we can’t do that. We have to use cars, and sometimes those suspects get away,” Hunt said.

Hunt said that under the old patrol scheme it was common for a department helicopter to arrive on the scene of a Code One call–a serious crime in progress–substantially before ground units got there. The helicopter crew could light up the scene and advise officers on the ground of suspect positions and threats. With helicopters, a roof check call could be done in two or three minutes, versus the 20 to 30 minutes it takes a ground unit.

Hunt thinks that, even with the current budget austerity, Houston police could leverage the helicopter unit to fly more by making it available to the 20 various county, state and federal law enforcement agencies that have operations within or adjacent to its territory. “We are the only ones who operate [law-enforcement] helicopters [in Houston],” Hunt said. He did note that the federal government gave the city a small grant to fly patrols over the ship channels.

Houston proper has a population of 2.2 million and an area of 600 square miles. There are more than 6 million people in the greater metropolitan area, making it the largest city in Texas.

Hunt believes senior police officials and most political leaders do not fully grasp all the advantages a patrol helicopter unit provides. For him, it all goes back to that night in the woods. “I understand the importance of it,” Hunt said. “I wish other people did as well.”