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Friday, February 1, 2013

Officers Halford and Smiley: Men of Honor

By Ernie Stephens

As you may have heard, we recently lost a crew of fellow police aviators. Officers Richard J. Halford and Shawn A. Smiley of the Atlanta Police Department went down in their OH-6 on Nov. 3 at approximately 2230 hours while searching for a missing nine-year-old. Wires were involved, but as of this writing it’s unclear if those lines caused the accident, or if they were struck because their already-crippled aircraft came down upon them. Regardless of the cause, I’m sure you all join me in saluting their service, and wishing their survivors, fellow officers and friends comfort.

As I watched the news accounts and read some of the articles about the accident, two things struck me—one of them in a good way, and the other in a very annoying way. What struck me in a good way were the comments made by the mother of the nine-year old just a couple of hours after the crash, and shortly after her son had been located by ground units.

“This is not fair,” said Amire Shakir-Fulford, who came to the crash scene. “[Those officers] were trying to help another family find their child. There’s nothing I can say to these people. They probably have little children at home.”

And Ms. Shakir-Fulford was correct. Halford, the 48-year old pilot, left behind a 21-year old daughter. Smiley, the 40-year old tactical flight officer, was a husband and father of children ages five, seven and nine.

“All I could do was cry because somebody lost their life,” said Shakir-Fulford as she held back even more tears. “They can’t go home and hug their children, their wives—nobody.” It seems like the police don’t hear those kinds of words enough, sometimes. And though she shouldn’t feel responsible for the tragedy, I could see in her face that she had already begun to.

As for the annoying thing I saw, it was the suggestion from citizens that police aviation creates a hazard in and of itself, especially in an urban environment. And that the best way to prevent any future accidents—saving a few million dollars in the process—is to simply disband Atlanta’s aviation unit. If a helicopter is needed, simply wave one in from a neighboring county.

It seems like no matter how many fleeing felons police helicopter crews find, how many lost children we locate, how many rescues are made, and how much order is restored, the knee-jerk reaction to a crash—regardless of the severity—is to call for the disbandment of the involved aviation operation.

In the fall of 2008, a Maryland State legislator jumped all over the Maryland State Police (MSP) Aviation Division after it suffered a fatal crash that killed two crew members, one of two patients, and an EMS technician. He told me that the police were obviously ill-equipped and improperly trained for medevac missions. In fact, it was his belief that a law enforcement body shouldn’t be involved in medical transports in the first place. (Never mind that MSP was the first public safety agency in the country to offer medevac services!)

MSP’s accident ended up drawing intense scrutiny from the FAA, the NTSB, and the department itself. The result was less of an indictment against the operation (as that politician was hoping), and more of an opportunity to find and fix several latent problems inherent in the air medical transport system nationwide.

MSP’s operation weathered the storm. In fact, those hearings helped the agency receive approval for a fleet of brand new helicopters, and raised the safety bar for all medevac operators.

I’m not so naive to believe that every person who is against police aviation will come to see that the benefits far outweigh the costs and the risks. But I think we owe it to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to keep police aviation effective and safe by learning from their experiences, whether successful or fatal. We can do that by looking closely at what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. Safety stand-downs, outside audits and internal reviews can be a big help.

And should a situation rise to the level of a full-blown NTSB investigation—as hard as it might be for us—we ought to look at the results with an open mind, and see what changes can be made to prevent future accidents and deaths.

I don’t think I have ever met Officer Richard Halford or Officer Shawn Smiley in my travels. They may or may not have come to the various police aviation seminars that I’ve been to, or been able to attend any of the annual ALEA conferences. And I certainly don’t know what brought their ship out of the Atlanta sky on the night of November 3. But I do know this: They served and died honorably. And for that, we owe it to them to keep flying.

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