Giving Winnipeg the bird

Police helicopter has more to do with wants than needs

James Culleton

“Then of course there was Morocco, who pledged to send 2,000 monkeys to detonate land mines… There seemed to be some question as to whether or not Morocco had the monkeys, and I said, regardless of whether they have them or not, that sounds cool as shit and I want that!”
– Will Ferrell, You’re Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush

Several local news sources have reported that Mayor Sam Katz, police Chief Keith McCaskill, Minister of Justice Dave Chomiak and several city counsellors are close to dropping some serious cash on a fancy new toy. In fact, the Winnipeg Sun alone published five (unanimously positive) articles on the subject over two days.

But just what kind of toy are we talking here? To quote the title of one Sun article, “TOP COP PRO CHOP.” In other, slightly bigger words, a police helicopter.

The Eurocopter EC120 Colibri, to be more exact. While this choice of helicopter has not been confirmed by anyone as of yet, the same model is already flown by the Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and York region police forces.

Just how much would the city pay for a shiny new whirlybird? For a Colibri, the basic price is about $1.5 million. Additional equipment would drive the price up to $2 million. The annual ‘operating costs’ for the helicopter have been estimated at $600,000.

But wherever this number came from, it’s almost certainly wrong. If the chopper flies 12 hours a day, five days a week (because crime takes the weekend off), based on 2008 figures fuel alone for the chopper would cost over $300,000 per year. Then, one has to consider maintenance costs, hangar rental, replacement parts and unforeseen acts of the flight Gods. ‘Operational costs’ don’t even factor in things like salaries for the pilots, and a good pilot can cost between $100,000 and $150,000 per year.

The argument has been made that a city chopper is worth any amount of money, in order to keep our city streets safe, and that argument may hold water. Consider the following scenario: Police are in hot pursuit of a level-4 carjacker. He is armed and extremely dangerous. Cruisers radio for the chopper, and within two minutes it’s above the scene. Police cruisers back away, keeping a safe distance while the chopper monitors the action…

The chopper flicks on its blindingly bright spotlight and starts tearing through residential districts. Finally, officers on foot catch up with the criminal and tackle him. Everyone involved looks like a real hero, protecting our streets from vicious scum like this.

Listen, it’s easy as any elected official to say yes to a police helicopter. It is even easier as the chief of police to say yes because you can use it to add a few extra zeroes to the end of the police budget.

What is difficult is standing up and saying “I don’t want to spend $2 million now and another million per year on a silly goddamn helicopter while the roads all go to Hell and the North End is dying of rot…’

But those are old, dull issues. A multimillion dollar helicopter that goes over 200 km/hr sounds cool as shit and we want it!

There is one final argument against a city cop chopper, an argument even more damning than any breakdown of the costs, or attacks on the frivolous, extravagant nature of it all.

Truth is, according to the manufacturer, the EC120 Colibri is not built to fly in temperatures below –40°C.

Case closed.

Rob Holt is a University of Winnipeg student.

Published in Volume 64, Number 1 of The Uniter (September 3, 2009)

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