When the Howard County Police Department announced in March that it was disbanding its aviation program, County Executive Calvin Ball said it was a “common-sense change” that would not affect residents’ safety.
Late last month, an Ellicott City resident went missing for more than five days. Howard police spent the week on foot checking local parks, hospitals, shelters and frequented areas.
A volunteer search party, with assistance from police, set out to search for Jason Mabee from sunrise to sunset July 27.
In the middle of the day, Mabee, 44, was found within minutes of a personal drone being flown in the air.
Julian Bustos, 36, of Severn, found Mabee in “less than three minutes of drone flight.”
The volunteer search party met up at Columbia Academy: Thunder Hill Preschool’s parking lot off Route 108 in Columbia. Mabee was found critically injured but alive in the woods south of the parking lot, police said.
Howard County disbanded its aviation program April 30 in an effort to curb spending due to a “historic” $108 million deficit. Ending the program will save the county more than $300,000 in fiscal 2020 and approximately $1.8 million over the next four years.
“My No. 1 priority is keeping our residents safe," Ball previously said. "This common-sense change allows us to address our fiscal realities without sacrificing that safety.”
When the program ended, however, there was nothing to replace it.
When asked whether the decision to end the program had any effect on finding Mabee, Sherry Llewlleyn, a police spokeswoman, said in an email, “We don’t believe it did [because] at the time police received the missing person report, Mr. Mabee hadn’t been seen in more than eight hours.”
If hours have passed before a missing person’s report is filed and/or days have passed since the person was last seen, using aviation is less effective because “the person could have gotten into a vehicle and traveled away from the area,” Llewellyn said.
“Aviation resources are typically used in missing person cases where there is viable information about the person’s possible location,” she added.
Viable information includes tracking the missing person’s cellphone, credit case use or social media postings. They also could be reported sightings and communication between a missing person and family or friends, Llewellyn said.
Mabee left his home without his wallet and cellphone, according to police. He also wasn’t wearing shoes. Attempts to reach Mabee’s wife, Adrienne Mabee, have been unsuccessful.
Aviation resources are less viable in situations in which a subject does not have a cellphone or wallet and there are no indications of their whereabouts, Llewellyn said.
Ball, who was not made available for an interview Monday, said in a statement that he “continue[s] to stand by the Howard County Police Department statements on this issue.”
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As the police “embraces innovation and effectiveness in creating their own drone program over the coming months, we will continue to rely on our mutual aid agreements and regional partners to assist us when needed, in terms of air support,” Ball said.
Howard will continue to have aviation coverage through partner agencies, including Anne Arundel County, Maryland State Police and other jurisdictions, Llewellyn previously said.
Police did not have the information readily available on whether the helicopter had ever been used to find a missing person. In 2017, it was used to help police locate an escaped prisoner. David M. Watson II spent six days eluding capture after escaping outside the Perkins Hospital Center upon transfer from the Howard County Detention Center. He was found in a drainage pipe in the woods off Dorsey Run Road.
Police had flown its single 12-year-old helicopter for crime and natural disasters between 2 p.m. and 2 a.m. daily. The county is in the process of selling the helicopter, valued at nearly $1.5 million, according to Llewellyn.
Like Howard, Maryland State Police is exploring the use of drones, but there is no approved program at this time, according to Brenda S. Carl, a state police spokeswoman.
The state police’s aviation program began in 1954 and has transported over 150,000 patients.
The state aviation command works 24 hours a day assisting law enforcement, search and rescue, emergency medical transportation, disaster assessment services and homeland security.