Thursday, July 2, 2009

City, province look at getting helicopters

City, province look at getting helicopters

CITY and provincial officials are looking at the possibility at putting both a city police helicopter and helicopter air ambulance into the skies over Winnipeg and southern Manitoba.

No decision has been made as both carry a significant cost, but observers say it's only a matter of time as the city's population grows and if Manitoba wants to keep up with what's happening in other provinces.

"Inevitably, I think we're going to have both of them," Progressive Conservative justice critic and police helicopter proponent Kelvin Goertzen said Monday.

Goertzen said Winnipeg police are examining whether the city can afford a police helicopter and use it the same way police in Edmonton and Calgary use their own helicopters to go after criminals.

Police spokesman Const. Jason Michalyshen said he couldn't discuss the matter.

"We're not in a position to make a comment," he said. "Nothing has been finalized."

Winnipeg Police Chief Keith McCaskill said in a report earlier this year he became interested in looking into the chopper proposal when Edmonton police got authority to get a second helicopter.

Goertzen said a helicopter would be a better use of police resources in a growing city. For instance it could follow a suspect's vehicle from the air rather than using up multiple police cruisers on the ground to do the same thing, reducing the dangers of a high-speed pursuit. In a recent police chase, city police assigned 10 police cruiser cars to the chase.

"There are so many different uses for it," Goertzen said. "Once it's in the air it's not going to be idle very much."

Goertzen said besides tracking vehicles, a helicopter can be used to for other surveillance in high-crime areas.

"There's an advantage to having an eye-in-the-sky," he said.

But a police helicopter won't come cheap. There is the initial $1.5 million to $2 million cost of buying and outfitting one plus the anticipated $700,000 annual operating cost. It's also not the first time city police have considered getting a helicopter. In 2003 a volunteer fundraising campaign collapsed when city hall did not appear willing to absorb the operating costs in the police budget.

Goertzen said the city has changed in six years. "There's no doubt Winnipeg can support it," he said.

Meanwhile, the province is still studying whether Manitoba should get its own helicopter air ambulance.

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