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Police helicopter purchase deserves some scrutiny | READER COMMENTARY

A Baltimore Police Department helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing in Patterson Park in the summer of 2020. File. (Quentin Bade/Baltimore Sun).
A Baltimore Police Department helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing in Patterson Park in the summer of 2020. File. (Quentin Bade/Baltimore Sun). (Courtesy of Quentin Bade)

In response to the recent article, “Baltimore Police to purchase three new helicopters following vote by city’s spending panel” (Jan. 5), the $17.6 million 10-year commitment is not a large portion of the $555 million Baltimore Police Department budget (which itself constitutes 12.9% of the entire city budget). Justification for the replacement of four older units with three newer units is “assisting when there are large crowds, natural disasters and vehicle pursuit.”

I am wondering if there are metrics for direct or indirect crime shrinkage based on helicopter usage. It would be informative to see when, how and why they’re being deployed. There are no crowds and haven’t been for nearly two years so this does not seem a realistic catalyst for usage. A natural disaster, perhaps earthquake, tsunami or wild fire, none of which has impacted Baltimore recently, if ever. Car chases or carjacking incidents are a very useful avenue for the helicopter, or as happened in my neighborhood last fall, looking for a lost school kid.

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There is a frequent evening helicopter presence over Bolton Hill where I live with no indication of any of these three cited circumstances. There is never foot patrol, nor vehicle presence, unless specifically requested or responding to an incident. Yet there is an armed guard outside our neighborhood pharmacy every hour it is open. Many neighborhood residents send packages there to avoid local porch pirates.

The Baltimore Police Department’s recent history with public promotion of various techniques, such as the Gun Task Trace Force and the surveillance plane program mentioned in the article, have yielded very poor results. The Gun Trace Task Force spawned a cottage industry of books and TV shows outlining the unbelievable “work” of these officers. The surveillance plane program has generated a $99,000 bill on top of the cost of the program with little, if any, yield. Both of the aforementioned initiatives augmented public distrust of the police force, an unfortunately remarkable achievement.

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It would be good public policy for the police to trumpet the help provided by a viable tool and generate positive public perception of their difficult work. But without any kind of verified documentation, skeptical citizens will question the investment and return. That makes it easy to assess this type of investment as “boys with toys” who go “up in the bird” and look at what we’ve got instead of assessing whether it’s helping or not.

There is an excellent phrase to help clients better understand their situation: “Your strategy is perfect for the results you are getting.” Using this simple but astute logic it may be time for some new direction in policing for Baltimore. Perhaps getting folks out of helicopters and into neighborhoods and on streets is a worthwhile endeavor.

NIck James, Baltimore

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