Friday, April 25, 2014

Michigan State Police: $5 million helicopter would help urban areas, reduce dangerous chases

LANSING, MI -- Michigan State Police are hoping to purchase a new helicopter for additional patrols in some of the state's most crime-riddled cities, but the $5.2 million price tag may still ground the spending proposal.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved a state police budget bill that includes $4.9 million for the department to add a third helicopter to its existing fleet along with another $246,000 in ongoing money to cover annual fuel and maintenance costs.

The funding, recommended by Gov. Rick Snyder in his executive budget proposal, was left out of the omnibus spending bill approved last week by the House Appropriations Committee, which included a placeholder to allow for future debate over the point of contention. 

State police say the new helicopter would allow its aviation unit to double patrols in Detroit, Saginaw, Pontiac and Flint as part of the governor's Secure Cities Partnership Initiative while giving it more flexibility to respond to needs in other parts of the state. 
Sgt. Dwayne Gill, testifying before the Senate committee this week, told lawmakers that helicopter patrols have proven to promote safety and save lives on the ground.

"When we have helicopters up, we don't have any chases," Gill said. "When they know the helicopter is up, they don't run from the police because they know they can't outrun the helicopter. As you all know, police chases are very dangerous, and if we can stop one chase or many, we're saving lives. Trooper lives as well as citizens."

MSP currently owns and operates Bell 430 and 206 L-3 helicopters, along with a small Cessna 182R plane. The whirlybirds are based in Lansing and Detroit, where the state has been supplementing local police efforts with airborne patrols since 2009. Patrols were expanded to cover other distressed cities in 2012.

The patrols are invaluable, according to the state police, but some lawmakers have questioned whether the state is in a position to spend $5 million-plus on a new Bell 407 helicopter, as proposed.

"I want to go out and buy a Cadillac, but I can't afford a Cadillac. The question is, in the budgetary times that we're now in, can we afford it?" said state Sen. Morris Hood III of Detroit, one of two Democrats on the appropriations committee who chose not to vote on the corrections budget bill that advanced in a 14-0 vote.

"I would love to have 30 helicopters flying over the state, especially in my community, which is considered one of these distressed cities where we have issues all the time. My point was only, can we afford it right now?"

Other lawmakers, anticipating public inquiries about the proposed spending in their home districts, grilled MSP about how a third helicopter would impact communities that are not currently part of the Secure Cities Partnership with the state.

"There may be some criticism for spending $5 million, and I wanted to hear if I'm helping my troopers and the citizens," said Sen. Mark Jansen (R-Gaines Township).

Beyond patrols, Gill explained that MSP's aviation unit responds to emergencies around the state. He noted that an MSP helicopter was the first on the scene when a fishing boat capsized in Saginaw Bay last year. MSP helped locate the ship for the U.S. Coast Guard, which ended up rescuing one of two fisherman who had been on board.

"We plan on using it out state to some of the other areas that we have not had the opportunity to get to," Gill said. "It will definitely help us with our readiness."

State Sen. Darwin Booher (R-Evart) noted significant flooding in parts of Michigan earlier this month and asked whether the helicopter he saw flying over his community was a state police unit.

When he got the answer he was looking for -- it was an MSP helicopter helping to assess the damage -- Booher announced he was ready to vote for the budget bill.

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