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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Law Enforcement Notebook

By Ernie Stephens

Like many of you who have been in law enforcement for a while, I have watched most of my non-public service friends bounce from job to job over the years, usually in search of a thicker paycheck. But some changes were the result of being fired, laid off, or coming to work and finding the entrance chained-shut by the local sheriff’s office.

When I heard of such forced job changes suffered by friends and family, I would think about how lucky I was to have an occupation that, while not paying high private-sector wages, offered a level of security that most people out in the "real world" could not imagine. Thanks to personnel laws and strong labor unions, you pretty much have to be indicted to lose your badge. And even if something unfortunate does come up, the laws — at least here in Maryland — require paid administrative leave and a lengthy appeal process before a sworn officer can be terminated. Well, things have changed when it comes to job security in the world of public safety.

When the housing market crashed, so did the property tax and income tax revenues that fund all sectors of public service. State, county and local leaders are declaring fiscal emergencies, so that positions that were once legally or contractually untouchable can be subjected to hiring freezes, mandatory furlough days, and full-fledged layoffs.

Dismissing law enforcement personnel — even if just temporarily — isn’t the only unhappy result of the cash flow crisis. Many department heads have been ordered to make even deeper cuts, causing budget managers to draw a bead on helicopter units.

This change in job and unit security dominated many conversations at the annual Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) Conference in Savannah last July, including one I had with several guys over lunch in the hotel restaurant. We wondered how safe current helicopter operations are from the budget ax, and what the chances are for an agency that has already begun the process of adding a helicopter to actually get one.

Everyone at the table agreed that in some circumstances, the force multiplier effect of one aircrew being able to see more than several officers on the ground is extra important, particularly now that patrol rosters have been trimmed back. But it’s hard to get anyone at City Hall to see that point when the balance sheet shows how costly it is to buy fuel, overhaul an engine and keep the aircraft insured. This isn’t new, though. An aviation section always draws the attention of local leaders and department heads when money gets tight, even back when things weren’t nearly as bad as they are today.

I think there are some interim steps an aviation unit can take that might spare the helicopters from being sold off. It’ll take some careful planning, but I think they are viable options.

First, if the unit normally engages in routine patrols — which I realize is the most effective use of a police helicopter — I think it’s time to consider being reactive. Staying in the hangar until getting a call can save fuel and spread maintenance costs out a bit. Second, if the unit is operated 24/7, maybe it can run on a reduced schedule, such as 18/6. Third, if a unit has more than one aircraft, taking one offline might save some cash. Yes, I realize doing that will only jack-up the hours on the remaining aircraft, but the insurance carrier might cut you a break on the mothballed ship.

And speaking of insurance, when was the last time you looked at your policy? I know a sharp chief pilot who realized that the overall experience of his aviators now entitled the department to a significantly lower premium, compared to the last time anyone bothered to check.

One thing is for sure, the message of how much work a helicopter can do and how many lives it can save must be louder than ever, now. These are bad times to be without air support, particularly with ground personnel being spread so thin.

And before I forget, if you’re wondering where our friend Frank Lombardi is this month, we’ve done some shuffling around here at Rotor & Wing. Joy Finnegan took over as editor-in-chief in July, and I became the editor-at-large. It gets me out of the office more! That change included having me resume the law enforcement beat. But make no mistake about it, Frank does a great job and will remain a valued contributor. So, look for him in coming issues!

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