OCC Maintenance board asks for police helicopter return

       The recent budget-driven suspension of helicopter use by Colorado Springs Police spurred a protest at the December meeting of the Old Colorado City Security & Maintenance District Advisory Committee.
       Also in the past couple of weeks, the Old Colorado City Associates (OCCA) merchants group has been canvassing its members, and “everyone I've talked to says it's extremely important,” said OCCA Board President Jim Heikes.
       The Old Colorado City concern has been passed on to City Council member Jerry Heimlicher, whose District 3 includes the area. Heimlicher said this week he has major questions on the matter and hopes to get answers at a council meeting in early January, when Police Chief Richard Myers is slated to report back.
       The District Advisory Committee vote was unanimous, according to a written communication from Judy Kasten, its chair. The committee agreed “to urge all citizens to contact their city councilman” about the suspension. “We feel the service is very valuable and a great asset to the Police Department,” she wrote.
       Heikes, a former police officer, described the helicopters as a “deterrent” to crime that makes people feel safer “just to know the helicopters are in the air.”
       Another Westside group considering the matter is the Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN). Welling Clark, its president, suggested at the Dec. 14 OWN board meeting that the advocacy group hold a public meeting with the District Advisory Committee. “I'd like to get the information flowing,” he said.
       The police have two Vietnam-era helicopters, which were donated to the city by Fort Carson and have been in use by the department for 12 years. They are often used to follow fleeing suspects, shining a light on them from above.
       Police call the service the Air Support Unit (ASU). According to the police website, in 2006 “the ASU responded to 1,584 calls for service and assisted in 165 arrests [and] in locating 259 suspects and 22 missing persons. ASU also checked numerous homeland security locations and routinely patrolled the 10,000 acres of city parks, freeing-up patrol officers to address other community needs.”
       The problem confronting City Council is that the helicopters are aging, with possibly unfixable safety issues, technological shortfalls (including a detection capability that cannot effectively isolate humans from other sources of heat) and power (unable to fly as high as Pikes Peak), Heimlicher noted.
       Council decided during its 2008 budget-planning sessions to eliminate the ASU (thus saving $800,000) but also to look into grants and innovative ways to bring the service back in 2009. Heimlicher is even keeping an open mind about reinstating it in '08, but noted that he also must weigh the lack of apparent enthusiasm within the department itself. During budget discussions, Myers, when asked what he would do if given $800,000 without any strings attached, said he would use it to put more police on the streets. And, according to the local Police Protective Association, the ASU “is nice, but not that important for the officers on the ground,” Heimlicher said.
       The councilman also expressed irritation at feeling as if he still does not know the whole story about the helicopters' safety and cost. What he's now hearing from Myers, he said, is that the ASU could be restored this year for about $400,000 - half the originally estimated cost of the '08 program. “He's either badly informed or playing games,” Heimlicher charged.
       As for safety, the unit's mechanic had recently cited possibly major insurmountable problems with both aircraft, and Heimlicher does not know how extensively those issues have been studied.
       The Pioneer asked police spokesperson Creighton Brandt to look into the points Heimlicher had raised. Contacted a day later, he said he had no responses, but explained that “right now we're working on a presentation that has multiple options to it that Chief Myers will be presenting to council.”

Westside Pioneer article