London Assembly Member Victoria Borwick is seeking assurances from Boris Johnson that the Metropolitan Police Service’s air support will not be reduced after Government ‘austerity plans’ proposed that the number of police helicopters and air bases be slashed by a third across England and Wales.
I understand that there is a proposal to cut the specialist provision from the Air Support Unit that London needs, and combine it all into a National Police Air Service. Whilst it is obviously sensible to merge those forces who do not make the full use of their air support this is not the case for the London region, which even now cannot fulfil all the requested call outs for their service.
In 2006, the MPS bought three EC145 helicopters – the most advanced Police helicopters in the world – which have been especially developed and modified to meet their requirements. The helicopters fly about 3,300 hours a year, which equates to roughly nine out of every 24, over London, and deal with in excess of 10,000 different tasks.
Airborne crime fighting
About 60% of ASU work is search-related, including searching for suspects at large following burglaries and robberies, searching for missing and vulnerable people and searching for security purposes prior to or during an event.
With the advent of “Heli-tele” the police are now able to film what is going on in the streets below from the helicopters, to beam back directly to the Gold or other Commanders in charge of an event or demonstration. This allows officers on the ground to know if there is something coming their way that they cannot see yet, and the helicopter footage has the advantage of giving them precious time to organise the response.
A helicopter can search a large area very quickly and efficiently, particularly at night when the heat sensing cameras are on and this is a really effective way of saving ground resources, and saves tying up officers for several hours. We have all seen examples of this on TV, and by communicating from the helicopter tracking the suspect, the resources on the ground can be correctly directed.
In 1990s Home Office research looked at a comparison between airborne assets and foot assets, and found that the airborne service was by far the most efficient.
The infra-red camera on police helicopters is capable of identifying locations where people are potentially cultivating cannabis using hydroponics, growing in a solution of water and nutrients, which takes up less space and whole houses and buildings can be converted to cannabis factories.
When the helicopters go out at night the un-natural heat of the premises being used for hydroponics shine out like beacons across London. This enables police observers who are on the helicopters to note down the addresses for further investigation.
Earlier this year a man was arrested after cannabis plants with value of £200,000 were found in a house. Officers from Bellingham and Catford South Safer Neighbourhoods teams searched the house after the Met’s air support unit detected an abnormal amount of heat radiating from it. Sergeant Chris Ellen said: “the heat and smell had been well concealed, so it never would had been detected without the assistance of the ASU”.
Over 60% of cannabis production is home grown, with 75% percent of UK cannabis drug production controlled by Vietnamese drug barons. Each ‘factory’ produces up to £600,000/yr and ASU officers say there is “no doubt that this level of criminality is linked into organised crime.”
What is going to happen?
Rather than each force having its own helicopter patrolling its region, the new national service will be responsible for whole of England and Wales and be operated from one central command centre. There will also be a clear “user requirement” laid out, meaning cost-intensive flights will be approved only if they are necessary.
Currently there are 30 police air bases in England and Wales that serve 33 aircraft, costing forces £66 million a year. Under plans this will be cut to 20 bases serving 23 aircraft – shaving £15 million off the air support budget.
Londoners need this resource. In fact because of maintenance, there are often only two helicopters available and with the extra requirements of the Olympics it is important not to dilute London’s safety net at this time and there are those who feel additional resources should go into this asset, with additional bases or refuelling available, so as to reduce response times.
These decisions are still being debated and I am calling on the Mayor to protect London’s citizens in a cost effective way, otherwise once again London ends up subsidising the rest of the country, when we need this resource immediately available in the capital.