Facing Challenges in Airborne Law Enforcement

Unlocking the overall benefits to training standards can mean greater efficiency and effectiveness in police helicopter units worldwide.

Your employer teaches you everything from the ground up, but only once you’ve worked for them in a different capacity for several years. Or you might get hired only if you already have experience elsewhere. Those are two paths to employment.

You follow governments’ minimum requirements, or you adhere to a comprehensive, expanded schedule of training and subject yourself to third-party review. Those are two approaches to preparation.

Together, these describe the extremes of hiring and training law enforcement air crews in the U.S. and abroad. How can they exist across one of the most demanding aviation disciplines combined with one of the most demanding jobs?

The short answer is — money, but it’s more complicated than that.

A major factor in the lack of mandated standardization, and the resultant breadth of training regimens, is the range of unit compositions across the world, the result of differing mission profiles, politics, community acceptance and, again, money. From small police or sheriff’s departments that contract for helicopter flights from local operators, putting an officer up as an observer, to massive agencies with double-digit mixed fleets and as many mission profiles, creating a single standard is simply not practical and, even if a standard existed, mandating one would probably lead to the closure of many air units worldwide.

Therefore units that are stood up and operate without a third-party certification or accreditation are not a minority.They are the majority — only 10 agencies in the U.S. have successfully completed the Airborne Law Enforcement Assn. (ALEA) accreditation process to date, and Dan Schwarzbach, ALEA president, points to funding as a limiting factor for most units, as well as the biggest challenge for training in general.

To address training, ALEA not only acts as an advocate for its members and their missions, but also offers a broad range of resources, from information to seminars and, of course, accreditation. Members can access all the documentation involved in preparing for a review, even if they never seek accreditation. With those documents, a gap analysis can lead to meaningful improvements.

Regarding active training, at ALEA Expo 2017 in Reno, Nevada, 10 3-day courses on both safety- and mission-focused topics will be available beforehand plus 14 tracks of classes during it.

But even if sufficient budget were available, agencies can’t afford to dispatch all flight crews for a week — daily patrols and call-outs won’t fly themselves. So ALEA is planning changes. Rather than an annual expo and a half-dozen regional safety seminars, Schwarzbach said, “We are going to be more strategic about our education offerings, with a total of 12 yearly events focused on training and standards,” including its annual event, plus a new Drone Expo to be held Oct. 16 to 19 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The National Sheriff’s Assn. is also recognizing unmanned aerial systems (UAS). It held a seminar on the topic at the association’s Annual Educational & Technology Expo, also in Reno, Nevada, in June. Its members have many other missions to perform and for which to train, but the relative ease and low expense of acquiring a small drone means it’s a topic deserving attention. The seminar provided an overview of applicable missions and of how a department might establish such a unit.

Another sign of the growing prevalence of drone technology is the emergence of a company that offers training with a focus on mission, not just flight. Icarus Aerospace grew out of an agricultural drone training operation. Most of its current instructors bringing practical public service experience, such as law enforcement, emergency medical services and military backgrounds. Icarus President Joshua Brown said that not only do they have the experience, they have a “tactical village” in which to train. Beyond training individuals or departments, he said, he sees value in bringing together disparate organizations. “We know how all these people work, and we’ve been able to bring together, for example, two nonprofits, the federal government, three manufacturers of UAS, plus two training businesses,” he said.

Of course, manned or unmanned, the advantages of training with those who understand airborne law are why air units might choose to provide that training in house. Who knows better the challenges and opportunities of the missions, and the peculiarities of their physical and political environments, than the ones who experience it daily? A good flight school can teach how to fly. But how about to patrol or respond to a burglary in progress? For that you need instructors with real-world experience.

This is why most airborne units employ some level of in-house training, which might include all or some phases, from ab initio pilot to TFO training, and even more varied mission-specific tasks like firefighting, search and rescue, SWAT insertion or even airborne use-of-force.

There are risks to providing all instruction in house, however, including reduced objectivity due to familiarity between the student and instructor, and the dreaded “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mind-set. This latter risk is actually two-fold — perhaps how a particular maneuver or mission profile is trained could be trained more safely or efficiently, or there might be a better maneuver or profile that is safer or more effective. These and certainly other reasons argue for at least some outside instruction, perhaps an ALEA Expo or an expert instructor.

One such instructor is Kevin Means, former chief pilot and tactical flight officer (TFO) with the San Diego Police Air Support Unit, and a former ALEA president. Means is particularly focused on the use of forward-looking infrared systems (flir), which in their recent incarnations are highly valuable tools, night or day. But they take teamwork. “The TFO needs to learn how to operate the flir, and the pilot needs to know how to fly the flir,” he said.

Jack Schonely brings more than 30 years of law enforcement experience to his role as an instructor, including well over a decade in the air with the Los Angeles Police Dept. His expertise is centered around understanding suspect behavior and developing and deploying perimeters in the field to capture them. Attendees at ALEA Expos are probably familiar with him. His book, “Apprehending Fleeing Suspects,” is considered a must-read in the industry.

Another resource with a distinguished career in airborne law is Jim Di Giovanna, who retired as commander of the Los Angeles County Sheriff Aero Bureau. His training addresses more of the management/supervision side of air units. He was also a charter commissioner, and then president of the Public Safety Aviation Accreditation Commission, which established standards and processes through ALEA.

The Netherlands’ national police force has developed its own method for hiring flight crews on a compressed schedule that quickly weeds out those who might not perform up to requisite standards. Selection starts by looking at five criteria, including communications skills, knowledge of ground operations and tactics, multitasking, navigation skills and integrity.

The force reduced the initial flood of applicants to 60 then to 10 after a preliminary examination that included multi-sensory stimulant exposure, tests for ability and psychiatric evaluation.

Once hired, basic training takes the candidate from zero to private pilot with helicopter endorsement in two weeks. Pass that, plus other testing, and you continue with the training, all conducted in house. The core document issued to students at that stage is one that details the curriculum, goals and ratings. Their textbook, characterized by TFO/instructor Harald Brink of the Dutch police as its “bible,” is actually Kevin Means’ “Tactical Helicopter Missions: How to Fly Safe, Effective Airborne Law Enforcement Missions.”

Basic training ends with a skills evaluation in the field with constructed scenarios. If the student passes, the next step is day and evening flight training, working with instructors, on board, and ground units in more scenarios, some pre-planned and some developed ad hoc with available assets.

When the time comes, the student faces a pass/fail evaluation. A student is permitted to only fail once, after which he or she would receive remedial training before a second evaluation. If passed, he or she is given “wings” and put into service.

Yet, as good as many agencies are, only the U.S. has an accrediting organization, though voluntary. The need exists, but the resources are often inadequate. The value of public service aircraft are too great to ignore, so the industry as a whole forges ahead doing what it can to improve efficiency and effectiveness, serving communities the best they can. RWI

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