Police Aviation Under the Gun

 - June 15, 2020, 1:14 PM

Nationwide calls to defund police units in the wake of the death of George Floyd is again putting law enforcement aviation under the microscope and widespread local tax shortfalls triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic are adding fiscal consequences. The implication for helicopter OEMs, counting on the stability of the parapublic market to cushion dual blows from downturns in the air ambulance and offshore energy markets, is potentially troubling.

High-profile police helicopter units, especially in middle-sized markets, can be the first to fall under the weight of budget cuts. But this time, not even large city programs might be totally immune from the fallout. 

Political leaders in major cities, including New York and Los Angeles, have vowed to place the police on a budgetary diet. New York City comptroller Scott Stringer wants the $5.9 billion annual police budget there cut by $1.1 billion over the next four years. New York operates a fleet of eight police helicopters.

In Los Angeles, the city council is considering a resolution to cut police department funding by $100 million to $150 million from its $1.8 billion annual budget. Los Angeles operates the largest municipal police aviation unit—the air support division—in the country with 19 helicopters and 88 personnel. Air support, armed with a plethora of metrics demonstrating its prowess as a “force multiplier,” has evaded past attempts to trim and/or eliminate it, but has been under increasing scrutiny after a 2018 police commission report faulted SWAT team members for using one of the unit’s helicopters to shoot an unarmed suspect.  

Even before the civil rights protests triggered by the death of Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police on May 25, Covid-19 math had turned city and state annual budgets into deep deficit holes. A snapshot: -$54 billion in California, -$13.1 billion in New York, and -$2.7 billion in Ohio.

The Sonoma County (California) sheriff, Mark Essick, is trying to help meet budget cuts mandated by the county board and has identified the aviation unit as a possible budget item that could help lower the deficit. He estimates eliminating the aviation unit could save $2.2 million per year. The department currently operates a two-year-old Bell 407GX and has been operating helicopters for more than 40 years. "It would be a huge blow to our community if we lost it," he said.

Meanwhile, San Diego is considering a significant reduction in the hours it flies its police helicopters. The same pattern was replicated in the wake of the 2008 recession, when police departments, faced with the choice of reducing ground patrol forces or its helicopters, often chose the latter. 

That bias has often won out in the ensuing years. Last year Howard County, Maryland, faced down its then-projected $108 million budget deficit by chopping off its police aviation unit at an annual savings of $300,000. Houston reduced the size of its police helicopter fleet and converted from a patrol to a dispatch model in the wake of $40 million in overall department budget cuts in 2012. 

The current political-fiscal dynamic has combined to potentially place even more pressure on police aviation. Baltimore plans to scale back its aviation unit to fly only 12 hours per day. Nashville, which has committed $12 million for two new police helicopters, is facing down the prospect of having to raise property taxes by 32 percent to bridge a $470 million revenue gap over the next 16 months and social activists there already are agitating for the helicopters to go. The “Nashville People’s Budget” coalition wants that $12 million used in part to fund affordable housing for up to 750 people.