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Does Your Law Enforcement Agency Have An Aviation Unit?

Posted 6 years 5 days ago ago by Admin



If your answer to that question is “Yes,” but you are concerned about funding, or if the answer is “No,” but you want to turn that no into a yes, then this is the article for you.

Ever since helicopters first entered law enforcement in the 1940s, agencies have been facing the fiscal challenge of how to fund such capital-intensive assets. Agencies have historically—and in many cases, automatically—assumed that purchasing an aviation unit is the only way have one. This approach relies heavily upon a significant capital budget allocation that may only be available during periods characterized by: (1) a sound economy, (2) a growing population, and (3) a generally prosperous citizenship to absorb the requisite increase in taxes. Unfortunately, the timing that dictates the need for an air asset may not coincide with all of these conditions being met.

In other cases, during prior good economic times, some agencies that were flush with cash did not enter the airborne law enforcement community. Typically, this decision related to one of three primary issues:

  • The inability to justify the benefit, as the aerial asset was characterized as a “want,” not a “need.”

  • A lack of political will (politics)

  • An aviation unit was identified as a need, but the governing legislative body deemed it too expensive

In my tenure as an officer in charge (OIC) for a regional program in Southern California, I quickly learned that politics is often the most challenging issue. If your agency is considering the prospect of an airborne law enforcement (ALE) startup, begin by communicating with your law enforcement organization and get your personnel to embrace the vision. Remember, some agencies have former military pilots that can be very helpful with educating their colleagues on the benefits of an air platform.

Secondly, begin to educate your active community members about how an air unit can become a cost-effective crime fighting tool, force multiplier, and multi-faceted platform for emergency services. The Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) has some very compelling articles1 that explain why air assets are a necessity for law enforcement. These articles are easily accessible to ALEA members, so if you need access to such resources, just ask. Most ALEA members are enthusiastic proponents of airborne assets and can provide valuable input on the benefits of such a program.

Last, but certainly not least, educate your elected officials on the need for an air unit. As law enforcement agencies reduce their workforce, air assets can prove to be force multipliers that significantly increase apprehensions of criminals, and some studies have shown lower crime rates.2 When it comes to civil unrest demonstrations and police pursuits, air assets are instrumental in command and control platforms. An effective method of enlightening decision-makers is to contact neighboring agencies with air assets and see if you can get members of the legislative body up for a ride-along.  

One item that is often overlooked is cost savings. For example, if the air asset responds to a call and is first on the scene (which is very common) the airborne unit is often best positioned to establish the probable cause for an arrest. That alone can greatly reduce the workload and requirements for follow-up investigation. Often an arrest leads to solving additional crimes and further reduces investigators’ time spent, enabling them to focus on other cases. These are hard dollars that cannot be easily quantified, but nevertheless result in real value, both in terms of efficiency and also in maintaining public safety.


Aviation units flying aging surplus military aircraft, like this OH-58, are prime candidates for leasing programs.

Leasing Solutions

So now that you have done your due diligence with the ground work, how will you fund the aircraft? Unless your agency is flush with cash, identifying a funding solution will quickly become your biggest challenge.

Several years ago the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had the wisdom to replace their aging fleet by leasing new aircraft. Leasing is an affordable way to acquire new aircraft and keep budgets flat for the term of the lease. Much like an automotive lease, it requires a minimal downpayment, affordable monthly payments, and the equipment is returned at the end of the term. This type of lease is known as an “operating lease.”

Another type of lease is a “capital lease.” The main difference between an operating lease and a capital lease is that a capital lease has the agency owning the asset at the end of the lease. This can present the problem of disposing of aircraft desired for an upgrade. So this lease method of financing may be better suited for other types of municipal assets, such as fire equipment. In essence, a capital lease functions more like a purchase with a loan or municipal bond financing source.

Both leasing methods can be tailored to include everything from routine maintenance to major component overhauls. They can also be structured such that the asset is delivered fully equipped for the specific mission needs of the agency.


1  The Cost Effectiveness of Police Helicopters,” Senior Police Officer D. B. Schwarzbach. (20 January 2008)

2  Police Helicopters Work Smarter Not Harder,” Jacob W. Reutner. (2011)

About the author: Tim Starn is the director of law enforcement sales for Infinity Helicopter Leasing (IHL). Starn recently retired after a 31-year career in law enforcement. As a commander with the Costa Mesa, California, police force, Starn managed an interagency, regional three-helicopter program. He coordinated funding strategies for the program, managed the budget and vendors, and selected officers to participate in the program. Starn understands the law enforcement segment of the helicopter industry from personal experience, and he is coordinating IHL’s effort to target the law enforcement industry for helicopter leases. For more information, email Tim at [email protected].

About the company: Infinity Helicopter Leasing (IHL) is an operating lessor of helicopters, which is actively pursuing law enforcement agencies that have a desire to lease their aircraft. IHL is able to provide operating leases for both factory-new as well as pre-owned helicopters, and the company can provide solutions that coordinate with the manufacturers of both airframes and engines to enable very predictable budgeting based on the operational tempo of the agency. IHL would be happy to work with agencies that are interested in establishing a new aviation unit, as well as those that have existing assets which they are looking to upgrade.