The Chicago Police Department this week joins other major cities in using a helicopter for fighting crime and homeland security, leaving behind the days of relying on other law enforcement agencies and passing news helicopters to help officers, reports the Chicago Tribune. Chicago once boasted about creating one of the nation’s first helicopter units, and then fell behind when it mothballed its program in 1980 to cut costs. Los Angeles, where helicopters regularly chase fleeing suspects, maintains 17 police copters; New York City has six.
Chicago became the only department of the 10-largest U.S. cities not to have a police helicopter. This week, a helicopter acquired from the Chicago Fire Department is expected to be put into service. Police hope to have an additional helicopter–bought with a federal homeland security grant–in the air by the end of the year. The new police helicopters will be loaded with options, such as thermal imaging cameras, allowing officers to use heat instead of light to see in the night. A “moving map navigation system” will use global positioning technology to navigate. Criminologist Geoffrey Alpert of the University of South Carolina examined the usefulness of police helicopters in a 1990s study funded by the Justice Department. “When I first started looking into it, I was skeptical. But after six months riding around with these guys in the helicopters, I saw what an important job these guys do,” he said. The biggest downside is the cost. He estimated that the helicopters and various add-on options would cost at least $2 million plus about $300 an hour to operate.