I’m sure we have all seen a police helicopter flying or circling over our heads, but the question always pops up as to what are they actually doing up there? For the vast majority of society, the police helicopter being overhead is just something that may invoke curiosity, for those who are doing something they shouldn’t, the feelings could be very different!
Police helicopters are mainly used for observing and managing pursuits, crowds & investigations as well as suspect tracking, speeding and restricted airspace enforcement, or to quickly deploy officers and specialist teams. Some may also double as an additional air ambulance and search & rescue aircraft.
Throughout my career, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing many police helicopter pilots as well as flying in one for a shift to get a real understanding and appreciation of how typical police forces use this expensive, but essential asset.
Police helicopters range from one end of the scale to the other all over the world. Depending on the budget and mission capabilities, a police helicopter can be a small machine like a Robinson R44 or MD 500 all the way up to a Leonardo AW139 or Airbus H225, but they all play a vital role within the communities they serve.
Here are some of the main roles a police helicopter can be called upon to assist with:
Pursuit Recording & Management
By far one of the most well-known uses of the police helicopter is filming pursuits. We have all seen the video footage on YouTube and TV shows of suspects being chased by a line of police cruisers while being spied upon from above.
The benefit of getting the police helicopter overhead is that it allows the ground crews to back off from the pursuit reducing the pressure on the driver and forcing them into making poor decisions in their attempt to get away. Many times the suspect is unaware the police helicopter is on the scene and because of their height above the ground, the officers on board the helicopter have a great view of the entire area.
By liaising with the ground crews via radio, the police helicopter crew relays the suspect vehicle’s turns and directions to aid in setting up a blockade, ‘Stinger‘, or help to divert the suspect away from populated areas. The helicopter can allow the pursuit to continue at a reduced risk and give the suspect/s the chance to ditch the vehicle and proceed on foot. This dramatically reduces the risk to the public.
By recording and managing the events from the air it not only provides essential evidence from the camera but also allows for effective asset management from the radio officer on board the helicopter as they can see the ‘Bigger Picture. This allows for much more efficient use and control of other units to aid in apprehending the suspect/s.
Tracking Suspects, Vehicles, Boats & Aircraft
Following on from the pursuit is asset tracking. Many times the helicopter is used to track suspicious vehicles whether they be on land, sea, or in the air. Again, most of the time the persons being tracked are unaware of the helicopter and this allows for them to continue on their business allowing the pilots to gather crucial video evidence or lead them onto higher prized targets.
The zoom capability of the cameras onboard most police helicopters allow the aircraft to be great distances away from the subject being tracked and still have excellent visual contact.
Overwatch for Specialist Operations
When building breaches are about to take place of known criminals that will not give up easily, the helicopter can be used to provide overwatch. This eye in the sky allows the entire area/building to be covered visually with a live downlink to the officers on the ground who can then see what’s going on.
By providing overwatch, the helicopter crew can call out any suspects escaping from rear doors, jumping over walls, and also see through windows with the color camera to help identify any threats that may be waiting inside. By having a real-time feed available to officers and management on the fly decisions can be made quickly and the opportunity to cancel the breach made if the immediate risks appear to be too high.
Rapid Specialist Deployment
One thing helicopters can do is move low and fast. This makes them perfect for fast insertion of specialist teams like SWAT or dog handlers. By landing or roping officers onto rooftops, bridges, boats, or other inaccessible areas it allows the police force to quickly get assets in the right area before the situation changes.
The police forces that utilize the larger helicopters for specialist deployment train often to allow the highest standards of efficiency and safety to be maintained.
Here is a great example of how police use a helicopter to insert a four-legged ‘Fur Missile!’
Speed Limit Enforcement
Helicopters can be used to monitor traffic for speeding. Although it is rarley done because of the high hourly cost of the helicopter, it does not mean that while enroute back to base, a vehicle spotted travelling way over the speed limit can be tracked.
Painted markers on the roads can be filmed as the car passes between them and because they are a known distance apart, the police can easily present video evidence to prove the vehicle was breaking the speed limit. A quick zoom of the camera onto the license plate seals the deal, even sometimes a shot of the driver may be taken too. The other alternative is the radio operator calling in ground units to intercept the speeding vehicle.
I had to laugh on the night I was riding in a police helicopter when two motorcyclists were seen ‘Going For It’ on the highway. It was so obvious to see they were speeding so the civilian pilot and camera/radio officer quickly tracked onto them. As the motorcyclists pulled off the highway and stopped at a set of lights, the officer lit them up with the helicopters’ 30 million candle power ‘Nitesun’ spotlight. Just his way of saying “We see you boys, now behave!”. It did the trick as they rode off and proceeded within the speed limits.
Search & Rescue
One of the great features of the police helicopter is the HD color and thermal imaging cameras. Using this gimbaled tool to help locate a missing person can mean the difference between a good or a bad outcome. Young children, people with mental issues, and older folks with Alzheimer’s who have gone off wandering are common subjects that police helicopters get called upon to help look for.
Depending on the size and capabilities of the helicopter, they may just be used to help search and locate a person if the helicopter is small, then call in ground crews, mountain rescue, national guard, or a larger helicopter to help extract the person. If the police helicopter is larger, with a winch and trained crews then the extraction can be done right then.
Even having 2 or 3 pairs of eyes over a scene can allow a vast area to be covered in a short space of time, then add the capabilities of the thermal imaging camera picking up glimpses of a heat source through a tree canopy can really help direct ground crews to quickly investigate.
I have been part of some police search operations and when the person is found alive its a great feeling, however when you are one of the first people to find a body, the feelings are very different!
Aerial Evidence Gathering
The camera on most police helicopters is utilized to film video and take still photos. This makes them a great tool for gathering evidence of accident scenes, crime scenes, potential threats, or anything else the police force deems necessary. By taking a photograph from above it allows scene investigators a much better idea of what happened at a car accident for instance when they can see where a trail begins and how everything lay in the aftermath.
Skid marks, bent barriers, bends in the road, etc can all be shown in relation to one another and can make an investigation so much simpler. In recent years the introduction of drones into crime scene vehicles is making this job less and less common, but it can be asked for, especially if the helicopter is on the scene or passing by on the way back to base.
Airspace can be temporarily shut down for any reason the FAA deems necessary. These are known as TFR’s – Temporary Flight Restrictions. When scheduled and active these TFR’s are published and no pilot is allowed to enter without authorization. A police helicopter, along with the military can be utilized to enforce this TFR to escort aircraft out of the restricted airspace should a pilot wander in.
Whenever the U.S. President flies there is a TFR issued around the airport in which he lands and departs from, natural disasters, large gatherings like the Super Bowl are all occasions where the FAA does not want ‘Looky-Loo’s’ wandering around the sky creating a security threat or getting in the way of rescue efforts.
Take a look at the next Super Bowl and see if you can see a police helicopter cruising around!
Some of the larger police helicopters can also be called upon to act as Air Ambulances as a secondary role. Having the capability to install a stretcher or multiple stretchers into the cabin can allow for more patients to be rapidly transported, usually from scenes with a large casualty count.
In cases like this, the doctor or paramedics that are on the scene will escort the patient in the police helicopter as the police crew is not trained to deal with this type of medical emergency. Having a helicopter with this multirole capability can make a real difference in getting as many injured people to the hospital and is a great asset for the local community.
There are many roles that a police helicopter is used for and depending on the size of the aviation budget for the police force, the number of roles it can be utilized for increases. The more versatile the police helicopter becomes, the more it benefits the community in which it operates.
Just being the ‘eye-in-the-sky’ is not enough for today’s police helicopters and many forces need to justify the large expense of these much-needed tax-payer tools. Having a police helicopter in your community helps to keep you safe and there to assist should you ever need one at one of the worst times of your life.
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