Aviation units costly, yet beneficial to Maryland police departments

For Sgt. Shannon Mack, the helicopter is just another form of transportation to get the bad guy.

“We do the same job as any officer, but from the air,” he said.

As division leader of the Anne Arundel County Police Aviation Unit, he’s seen some dramatic things from the sky.

The most rewarding rescues for Mack have always involved rescuing those in need.

“From an aerial platform commanders can get a bird's-eye view of any situation, as it is happening, to make the best possible decision to solve the problem,” he said.

In Maryland, a half dozen police jurisdictions use helicopters on a daily basis.

This week, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office announced its plans to add its own aviation unit, with funding provided by the Department of Defense’s 1033 program.

In Focus | Take an in-depth look into Harford County’s new aviation unit. Tuesday @ 6.

While safety officials tout aircrafts as an essential part of crime fighting, the cost of maintaining the equipment continues to rise.

In one year, it costs Anne Arundel County Police $1 million to operate its helicopters.

“They are worthwhile addition to our force,” Mack  said. “They get to places where we can’t and they provide the best aerial views of the county.”

Over in Baltimore County, pilots flew 1,600 hours total last year and spent $1.2 million to operate the three Airbus helicopters.

When broken down, one hour of fly time costs $800 for fuel and maintenance, said Cpl John Wachter, spokesman for Baltimore County Police.

According to a 2007 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 46 states had some type of aviation unit in operation. This counted for aerial surveillance for about 90 percent of the country.

The 201 units studied at the time, cost a combined $300 million in  2007 on aircraft purchases, leasing and financing, and maintenance and fuel.

Lynn Langton,who oversaw the report, estimates costs have gone up since then.

The study revealed that most police aviation units operated twice as many helicopters as they did planes.

While more efficient, maintaining helicopters was more expensive. The average cost of operating a helicopter was more than $300, while an airplane was just more than $100.

Even when a jurisdiction gets an aviation unit, costs can threaten its livelihood.

On more than one occasion, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has made attempts to cut the city police department’s “Foxtrot” aviation unit.

In 2010, she proposed cutting it altogether. Last year, she brought the fleet down from four to three helicopters.

The move would have saved the city $1.2 million.

Harford County police are aware of the costs associated to maintaining an aviation unit and have pledged to maintain the upkeep efficiently.

Howard County Sheriff L. Jesse Bane said the unit would work part-time and be funded through confiscated funds obtained through investigations.

“No tax dollars were used to create this unit”, Bane said.

Mack said the cost of using an aviation unit continues to make communities safer for people to live.

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