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police helicopter crash

This twin-engine police helicopter experienced “tail rotor failure in the hover whilst observing the scene below” in the Whitchurch neighbourhood of Cardiff, South Wales, in April 2000. official report


(The following is the NoiseWatch speech delivered at the Public Forum on Police Helicopters at City Hall on March 8, 2001.)

A frequent refrain from helicopter enthusiasts: "The only thing  that can kill a police helicopter program faster than money is noise." (Toronto Helicopter Report, 1997)

Good evening. I would like to provide you with pertinent information concerning police helicopter use in Toronto.

Toronto’s police chiefs have been lobbying for police helicopters for more than 14 years now. Interest in police helicopters heightened a couple of years ago after a few high speed police chase accidents. These accidents spurred the provincial government to help fund helicopter pilot projects in several southern Ontario municipalities.

I will be addressing the following key items this evening: noise, budget matters, surveillance, effectiveness and safety, as they relate to police helicopters.

Helicopter noise is at the heart of this debate, and rightly so. Torontonian’s quality of life and health are currently being compromised by today’s ever-increasing noise pollution. Police helicopters pose an additional threat to our well-being.

First the health factor:

Aircraft noise has been found to produce a number of adverse  health effects ranging from  sleep disruption and  hypertension to compromised cardiovascular and gastrointestinal  functions.

Sleep disruption can result in headaches, irritability, poor  work performance and fatigue. Studies have shown that even if  one is not awakened by noise, the noise can disturb sleep  patterns required for restful sleep. And such disruptions may  have possible long-term physiological effects. A 1993 Dutch  report determined that sufficient evidence existed to conclude  that aircraft noise, induced changes in sleep patterns and  subjective sleep quality, and could possibly cause coronary  artery disease.

A recent Staten Island study found that people living near  flight paths were more likely to complain of sleep difficulties  and to perceive themselves to be in poorer health than those in  a non-overflight area.

Then there is the annoyance and quality of life factor:

Judging by number of noise complaints, helicopters are 18x more bothersome than fixed-wing aircraft.

Compared to fixed wing aircraft, helicopters are virtually unregulated with respect to flight paths and minimum altitudes:  as a result noise impacts can be particularly severe.

Helicopters have a unique noise "footprint" consisting of a set   of rotor's pulsating slaps plus a low frequency noise component  that can induce vibrations and rattles in houses and other   structures.  (Needless Noise, Natural Resources Defence   Council,  Dec. 1999)

"There is no getting around the noise issue - say with a Bell   206, you·will hear the whop of the main rotor four to five   miles away and you will hear the tail as you get closer."   (Ibid.)

On budget matters I have a few things to say:

The requested $1.25 million to fund helicopters this year is very deceiving. This figure is only for 6 months of service. It is likely that the yearly cost for helicopter service would quickly climb to $5 million or more. Additional helicopters would most likely be requested down the road.
The police are already looking to private funding sources in the event that council turns down their request. This would set a dangerous precedent.

The surveillance issue is also an important one:

Even if the helicopters were completely silent and didn’t cost a penny to operate they would still constitute a form of unwarranted public harassment. Do Torontonians really want their private lives to be scrutinized in their back yards, on their balconies, in their leisure activities, around the clock, from an “eye in the sky”?

The operational effectiveness and efficiency of helicopters is important to consider:

Yes the latest report on police helicopters shows that the operational effectiveness/efficiency of police services improves in certain aspects with helicopters, but this finding is based largely on anecdotal comments from police officers rather than impartial data.

Are helicopters effective in pursuits or high-speed chases?  Not according to Dr. Whitehead’s London report. No police service has experimental or quasi-experimental evidence on the efficacy of helicopters in pursuits. All of the so-called "evidence" is anecdotal, not systematic. (This was a finding from the London report).

And just how ineffective or inefficient is the Toronto Police force anyway? The Toronto Police released a report last year showing Toronto's crime rate at a 25 yr. low!!
I think the Toronto police are doing a pretty darn good job in managing their operations.

Safety is another factor that needs to be addressed:

Yes police officers involved with helicopter trials say they feel safer  with the helicopters and yes some members of the public say they feel  safer with police helicopters...  however... safety is not an important issue in Toronto. In fact  it's hardly an issue at all. For its size, Toronto is one of the safest cities in the world today, as its low crime rate reveals. Police chief Fantino reiterated this just this week.

Several key helicopter and noise reports have been released recently.

The Toronto Police Services Board commissioned a study in 1997 to assess the potential contribution of police helicopters.

   Here are some comments from Canadian police officers in the 1997 Toronto Helicopter Report:

Natural Resources Defense Council’s Dec. '99 study on helicopters entitled “Needless Noise” (US)  concluded that helicopters hovering over residential areas pose a health hazard.

Toronto's Public Health Dept. released a Noise & Health Report in May  2000 outlining all of the potential health hazards that excessive city noise could have on Torontonians.

Dr. Whitehead’s London helicopter report concluded that:

1. Police helicopters do not reduce crime rates.
2. Helicopters enhance the operational effectiveness of police,
    however the evidence for this is heavily anecdotal. ("but not completely"). ***

These findings are all the more remarkable considering the report’s corporate sponsors were dominated by aircraft-related corporations and police departments.

Taking into account these two findings, Dr. Whitehead suggests the “best use” for helicopters, and that is, have helicopters patrol at higher than normal altitudes (above 1000 ft.). The reasoning is that since they don’t deter crime, they no longer need to be clearly seen, thus they can fly higher, but since they are deemed to be effective they should still patrol the skies.

Several assumptions have been made in coming up with this “best use” idea. First, that the decreased noise level of the higher flying helicopters will decrease the annoyance and health impacts of citizens below and secondly that airborne helicopters (patrol) are quicker to arrive at “situations” than helicopters stationed on ground alert (response mode).

First I am not aware of any studies that document a decrease in annoyance and health impacts of helicopters that fly a few hundred feet higher than normal. Secondly I _am aware of reports from police officers who comment that ground helicopters can often respond to “situations” quicker than airborne helicopters, particularly if the airborne helicopter is at the “wrong” end of a large city when called, and the ground helicopter is located centrally.

Here are a couple of quotes from police staff:

“The response time to a call from base may be as fast as when airborne - since some calls may require the helicopter to travel further than if it responded from base.”

“We keep our helicopters on ready status - they can be airborne in a few minutes.”

I’d like to quote now from a letter submitted to Dr. Whitehead and included in his London report:

“On the helicopter trial, here are a few thoughts that you might  wish to take  into account in your study.  

First, there are important political and social issues involved  that go far  beyond police logs and operational details. Night-time helicopter  surveillance is among the most extreme and intrusive measures that  a city  government can impose upon its citizens, for it takes away their  expectation  of night-time peace and tranquillity. In effect, it makes their  nights no longer  their own, for the police may now disturb them at will, in their  homes,  randomly and without cause. That is why it is standard practice  under  dictatorships.

In a democratic society, resort to such a measure is an  extraordinary  political act that must be continuously justified by those in  power. In some  cases, the justification is obvious: as in cases of natural  disaster or where  widespread civil conflict makes military-style policing an  unfortunate  necessity, as has been the case for so many years in Northern  Ireland....  But what is the justification in the case of London, Ontario? This  is hardly  Belfast or Pristina. Nor is it Los Angeles. I have had visitors  ask "what is  going on here?"
A good question, but I have no answer. Nor has City Hall or the police offered one. Perhaps they are secretly convinced that London had become the crime capital of the universe! 

Second, there are long-term economic and social consequences that flow from inflicting damage to the quality of life in a city. These are not easy to predict, but once residents begin to give up on a city it is hard to stem the decline. One need look no further than London's downtown. 

No one objects to the use of helicopters for search and rescue or as air ambulances or in any genuine emergency. Imposing helicopter surveillance upon a city, however, is an entirely different matter. It cannot be done without causing widespread disturbance. And for some Londoners, who once  lived  under tyrannical regimes, to be placed once again under night-time  helicopter surveillance is terrifying in a way that the rest of us  can hardly  begin to understand.   One final word. I hope you maintain a healthy skepticism about  police  data. A helicopter can be given an "assist" on virtually every  arrest that is  made anywhere while it is in the air - even if a cop on a bicycle  would  have been of more practical use! ...”

In closing, Toronto should not even be considering police helicopter use. There has been no demonstrated need for them. On the contrary, Toronto’s police force has been doing remarkably well without them, with crime at a 25 year low!

Rank-and-file Toronto police officers did not have an uprising demanding police helicopters! Nor did the citizens of Toronto. This is strictly a top-down initiative coming from the top police brass and a few other influential politicians.

As I have outlined, the negative effects of helicopters far outweigh any potential benefits. In emergency situations, free helicopter service is available from the provincial and federal governments.

NoiseWatch urges Torontonians to call or even better, write or fax your councillor and the mayor and voice your opposition to any police helicopter service, publicly or privately funded.

Eric Greenspoon
President - NoiseWatch

The police helicopter seems designed as an in-your-face sign of intimidation.” John Sewell, Eye

A police helicopter in Nassau County,
New York demonstrating a low altitude pursuit.