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Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler says he is discontinuing the aviation unit, which was started by his precesssor, because of safety, cost and focus issues.
Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler says he is discontinuing the aviation unit, which was started by his precesssor, because of safety, cost and focus issues. (Harford County Sheriff's Office / Baltimore Sun)

Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler announced Tuesday he is shutting down for good the aviation unit started by his predecessor.

Gahler told his command staff and county officials about his decision to discontinue the single helicopter unit at a meeting Monday, according to the Sheriff's Office.

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He cited safety, cost, focus and usage as reasons for the decision.

The aviation unit was created by then-sheriff Jesse Bane in late 2013 and immediately sparked controversy concerning its need and cost. The unit went operational in mid-April 2014.

The unit was in effect until March, when Gahler ordered it temporarily grounded for a review of safety practices. The sheriff noted in an interview Tuesday that the unit cost nearly $700,000 to operate the unit for about one year, including personnel salaries and benefits.

The personnel costs were covered through the Sheriff's Office budget and operating costs of the helicopter were covered by money seized during drug arrests until early this year, when operations were also folded into the general budget, Gahler said.

The unit started in late 2013 with 10 people – two pilots and eight tactical flight officers – but it had decreased to eight, leaving the unit with one pilot. Members of the unit worked with on a part-time basis – assigned to primary duties elsewhere in the agency, and the Sheriff's Office estimates it would cost more than $776,000 to run it full-time and correct the issues facing the group, according to a news release issued Tuesday morning.

Bane, the former sheriff, said when the unit was created that the helicopter, a Bell OH-36, was acquired without cost through a Department of Defense surplus program and the cost of operations, maintenance and the staff supporting the unit would be funded through asset seizures in drug cases.

The unit was based in quarters rented at the Forest Hill Industrial Airpark. A senior deputy involved in drug interdiction had called it "a force multiplier," while Bane himself said his agency "must take advantage of every asset at its disposal" to protect county citizens.

Gahler, who defeated Bane in last November's general election, had questioned the need for the unit during the campaign but, upon taking office in December, he pledged to give a thorough review of that and every unit in the Sheriff's Office.

Originally named Eagle I – Gahler changed the name to SABLE 1, for Sheriff's Airborne Law Enforcement, after he took over – the helicopter has been used to aid in suspect pursuits and rescue efforts, according to information released by the Sheriff's Office.

Safety was a key concern brought to his attention early in the assessment of the unit, Gahler said.

The sheriff said he spoke with a pilot who was concerned that "they didn't have appropriate supervision," which was a factor that led to him grounding the unit during the review.

"I'm certainly not going to put people in a helicopter, flying around, if they're not properly supervised," he said.

Robert McGainey, a recognized expert in airborne law enforcement operations and administration, according to the Sheriff's Office, was critical of the supervisory structure overseeing the unit from its inception and the concept of personnel being assigned to the program on a part time basis.

To correct the deficiencies, McGainey said the aviation team would need to be full-time and recommended that an aviation supervisor be hired, the Sheriff's Office noted in a news release.

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McGainey, a former lieutenant colonel with the Maryland State Police, was hired by Gahler in December as a part-time human resources specialist, whose duties included a review of the aviation operations.

Creating a full-time unit is in direct conflict his desire to return more deputies to the street, the sheriff said.

"Fixing the issues would prove to be an expensive option, one that would further extend the already strained budget supporting the program," according to Gahler.

Gahler said McGainey will now oversee the process of returning the helicopter to the federal government through the same surplus program it was acquired, as well as $1 million worth of parts and equipment also acquired from the feds.

The sheriff said the eight members of the unit, who also have full-time assignments in sheriff's office units, such as patrol, crime suppression and the drug task force, will remain in those positions. They spent a portion of their duty hours assigned to the aviation unit, either on call at the hangar in Forest Hill on in the air.

"We will remove the part-time function of aviation behind their full-time assignments," Gahler said. "What it results in is more law enforcement hours back on the street."

The assessment by McGainey reviewed Aviation Unit logs detailing specific information on each mission for SABLE 1 and crew, according to the news release.

In a 12-month period, 118 law enforcement related missions were flown, with the original data indicating 26 missions being tied to the apprehension of a suspect and/or location of a subject.

After a review of the original data, it was determined the use of SABLE 1 only directly assisted in 13 of the 26 mission outcomes.

In comparison, the release states, the Sheriff's Office responds to nearly 161,000 calls for service a year, which amounts to SABLE 1 being used in 0.07 percent of all calls.

Gahler said resources for the aviation unit would be put to better use covering deputy pay increases, hiring 36 more corrections officers, street-level drug enforcement and potentially putting body cameras on all deputies.

He also said drug forfeiture funds are better spent on dealing with "the heroin epidemic that is plaguing the communities of Harford County."

The sheriff said he has talked with representatives of the Maryland State Police and Baltimore County Police Department, which provided aviation support before SABLE 1 was acquired – as well as while the sheriff's office helicopter was operational – and they pledged their continued support.

"Both assured me that they're they for our aviation needs, as they have been there before, as they have been throughout, as they will be in the future," Gahler said.

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