Standing on perimeter as the flash of your emergency lights penetrate the night. You carefully scan the area for the suspect. Your senses are sharply honed, listening for the rattle of a fence or the shuffling of feet. K-9 arrives in the area and requests aviation. A short time later you hear the familiar hum of the helicopter. The pulse with the sound of thumping rotor blades as the air unit arrives on scene. In your head you hear, “Game on!” The helicopter orbits and you wait for the moment when the aircrew announces over the radio they have located the suspect who was seemingly impossible to find. It’s just that easy you may say to yourself … but is it?

These are the moments aircrews live for, and one example of why law enforcement agencies all over the world employ air assets as part of their efforts to serve their communities. At Every Coast Helicopter Operations (ECHO) we know this very well.

ECHO was formed “for Flight Crews by Flight Crews.” Our primary objective is to provide free training to Public Safety Aviation personnel. Those of us at ECHO understand the value air crews provide, but very often it takes a major incident before they are recognized for their highly specialized and technical job. As an example: Remember the infrared camera video of a Boston Marathon bombing terror suspect being apprehended? It’s the name famous video of the suspect hiding in a boat attempting to avoid detection while tactical teams surrounded him. This infrared video was captured by the Massachusetts State Police Air Wing who was overhead. The aircraft crew played a key role in the successful apprehension that day. Because of their experience, aircraft capabilities and advanced equipment, the flight crew identified and confirmed there was a person hiding in that boat. Consider how the scenario may have played out if they had not been overhead. Other measures would have to have been taken to make the confirmation, likely exposing a law enforcement officer and/or a K-9 to a barricaded suspect who has proven is willing to kill. The ECHO members of the Massachusetts State Police Air Wing will tell you they were just doing their job, but very often officers on the ground don’t fully grasp the importance of an air crew and the impact they can have. (An interview of the Mass State Air Wing discussing this all important mission can be found on ECHO’s Rotor Wash Podcast)

Can you detail mission capabilities of your agency’s aviation unit? What about their limitations? Still think a drone can do the job? Well here is the low down from the guys in the aviation unit. What you don’t see is the feverish work of the air crew. They are talking to K-9, perimeter units, headquarters, other agencies, and Air Traffic Control at the same time. All while carefully coordinating a search, operating a camera, map, and flying.

Two ECHO team members and active law enforcement flight crew members want to give you an idea of how the “guys up there” do it:

Aviation is an incredible asset to ground units during any in-progress or just-occurred crime. The majority of air crew members are sworn law enforcement officers. Most spent many years on the streets and possess valuable knowledge which they now apply from a different perspective. There is an order of operations within the police aviation world. Safety of flight is first and foremost, stay in the air to help those below. The very next priority is the safety of the boots on the ground. The cops above are always looking out for their brothers and sisters down below. We share the same sense of accomplishment when a job is well done and a similar disappointment when one gets away. The ability of a pilot or Tactical Flight Officer (TFO) to provide essential information, operational assistance with the deployment of assets, or suspect location/direction should never be underestimated.

For instance, many flights involve coordination with K-9 during ground searches. K-9 officers will tell you that they are watching their dog and interpreting behaviors to locate a suspect. They rely heavily on the backing officer/ cover officer to watch their “six.” Aviation has become the ultimate back for not just K-9 but every officer on the ground. Aviation does more than cover your “six.” They cover your three, twelve, and nine o’clock as well. Not to be mistaken as a replacement for a ground based back but, rather a supplement. Many aviation units share a special bond with the K-9s for this exact reason. The advancement of Forward Looking Infra-Red (F.L.I.R.) camera systems has taken us far from day of looking out the window. Aviation crews can see suspects in the dead of night thanks to F.L.I.R. technology. The relationship creates the best team in law enforcement. The K-9 officer knows that aviation will clear large areas rapidly as well as give advanced warning of any hiding suspect. Air crews will take prompts from K-9 and experienced TFO’s will recognized a dog’s behavioral changes when the K9 is nearing a suspect’s hidden location. This interest to the dog will be carefully searched by the aviators with their advanced technology. This symbiotic relationship allows the K-9 team to work with efficiency previously unimagined.

When a suspect is located by aviation units the chess game begins. Units are directed to cut off possible areas of escape. K-9 is advised of the best path of approach to safely challenge the suspect and effect an arrest. Should the suspect move prior to contact, aviation will keep units apprised constantly changing the perimeter and give a play-by-play update over the radio as if the aircrew were football broadcasters in a former career. The precision of aviation not only aids K-9 but lends to protecting the public. Fleeing suspects are routinely apprehended in residential neighborhoods before they can commit any additional crimes. Next time you stand perimeter, remember, aviation has your back too!

– ECHO Member & Master Police Officer/ TFO Larry Kamphaus, Orlando Police Department, Florida

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The days of chasing fleeing vehicles, weaving in and out of traffic at eye blinking speeds is coming to an end. We have seen countless tragedies where innocent civilians have been injured or killed from police pursuits. Vehicle pursuit policies and tactics have changed to reduce that liability. Gone are the days of chasing a bad guy for a tag light out, or other minor traffic infractions. Even though fleeing and eluding from the police is considered a felony in most states, willingly allowing a suspect to get away goes against all your senses as a police officer. The majority of law enforcement agencies require the suspect to have committed a forcible felony with the actual or threatened use of deadly force. So, what is to be done? Do we just allow criminals to go free? Absolutely Not! Law Enforcement (LE) Aircraft are the missing link in making pursuits safer. Agencies that employ professional aviation units will still be able to safely track fleeing vehicles and coordinate the apprehension when it’s safer for the citizens and officers below.

Without a LE aircraft the scenario looks something like this. A patrol officer is patrolling his zone and observes a vehicle that matches a recent report of a stolen vehicle. The officer runs the tag and it comes back “Stolen.” The officer requests a backup unit to respond. They activate their “lights and siren” to attempt a felony stop. The stolen vehicle then flees at a high rate of speed, blowing through stoplights, and running citizens off the road. Since stolen vehicles are considered property crimes and not forcible felonies; most agency policies dictate that the officer pull over and not pursue the vehicle.

Now, let us look at the same scenario, but with a law enforcement agency that has made the investment into aircraft, technology, and training. The officer identifies a stolen vehicle. He knows the aircraft is on patrol and requests for them to be enroute. The LE aircraft arrives on scene and slews the camera onto the stolen vehicle and notifies officers that they have the vehicle. The officers initiate a felony stop, but just like from an episode of C.H.I.Ps, the stolen vehicle flees at a high rate of speed. This action can often lead to endangering the public. Policy is adhered to and the vehicle is not pursued. But the LE aircraft, being an observation platform and not a pursuit vehicle, continues to surveil the fleeing vehicle. The experienced air crew positions the aircraft in a manner that the fleeing driver does not know he is being tracked. They update patrol officers via radio of the vehicle’s direction of travel while patrol officers parallel the vehicle on side streets staying out of sight and leaving the suspect to believe he has gotten away.

Typically, the vehicle enters a neighborhood where the suspect feels comfortable, and all the while the aircrew is watching from above coordinating with the ground units. Responding officers set up a perimeter outside the neighborhood deploying Tire Deflation Devices (TDD) at known exit routes. The cast net has been thrown over the suspect, awaiting the strings to be pulled for the final entrapment. The driver of the stolen vehicle exits the vehicle and unsuspectingly converses with the residents. Officers and K-9 respond to the residence and as they sight each other the suspect flees on foot. Still being monitored from the sky, the suspect’s direction of flight is updated and officers quickly apprehend the suspect. After being notified of the charges, the suspect states he wasn’t driving the stolen vehicle. Not realizing that the eye in the sky had surveilled him since the inception of the traffic stop and recorded his every movement. The entire incident being recorded introduces valuable evidence for a conviction.

By deploying an aviation asset, law enforcement has the advantage of deciding when and where the suspect will be apprehended. This creates less pressure on the fleeing suspect and encourages them to alter their driving pattern and slow down. Suspects often feel as if they have gotten away. When this happens, ground officers can follow at a distance, parallel on alternate roads, deploy TDD, blocking maneuvers, or wait until the vehicle stops in a location where the suspects are forced to attempt to flee on foot. One aircraft and an experienced crew have greatly reduced the agency’s liability. In fact, compared to many civil litigation cases, the cost of the aircraft seems to be the cheaper route.

Even airborne law enforcement tactics have changed over the last decade. A decade ago you would have seen a helicopter flying low level, visible outside the bad guy’s window and shining the vehicle with a spotlight letting the bad guy know the police were there and escape was futile. But with the ever growing increases in airborne law enforcement technology, aircraft are able to intercept a fleeing vehicle and covertly surveil it. The aircraft can operate at high altitude and in a trail or offset trail position relative to the vehicle. A trailing position allows the LE aircraft to follow the suspect in his blind spot and not pressure him into driving recklessly, affording law enforcement opportunity to decide which tactics to utilize and when and where the suspect will be apprehended.

Times are changing, but that doesn’t mean law enforcement is going to sit on the sidelines and allow suspects to run rough shod. Old ways of thinking must be set aside and police officers need to think outside the box. Technology and tactics must continue to change so that criminals will continue to be captured, but pose a minimum threat to the public. Utilization of law enforcement aircraft should lead the way in continuing to make future pursuits safer for the public.”

– ECHO Pilot Director & Deputy Sheriff Stanley Pruitt, Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, Florida

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These stories from two of our ECHO team members provide insight into how law enforcement aviation is and can be utilized throughout the world; but if you can imagine, this represents only a fraction of what LE air crews are doing on a daily basis. The small portion of their job discussed is not the end-all be-all of how to handle those types of incidents, but how they are trained and in accordance to their agency policies. We want to encourage you to take the time to meet with your air crew to learn about their capabilities and limitations. Ask the questions you have always wanted to ask and collaborate to come up with new and creative solutions for what we all want to do: “Catch the bad guy!” Honestly, the men and women providing you with air support are dedicated to your safety and helping you take a criminal off the streets. It also helps that chasing a fleeing suspect, rather on foot or vehicle, with a helicopter is the best time you will ever have short of flying with the Blue Angels.

If you want more information about ECHO, please visit us online at www.echoheliops.org or email me directly at [email protected] ECHO is a non-profit organization set on instructing, improving, and joining together public safety flight crews all over the world. We do this for FREE! So check out our upcoming events and courses. Encourage your aviation unit to join.

Thank you and be safe out there,

– Jason Sams, ECHO Director of Law Enforcement/ SAR