Police helicopter patrol plans draw complaints

March 30, 2007
By

JOHN RUCH

Boston Police plans to patrol the city with a helicopter—and possibly take off and land in Franklin Park—are drawing complaints from local activists and City Councilor John Tobin.

“The idea seems to run contrary to the efforts we have all been trying to make over the past few years to reduce noise, especially in Jamaica Plain,” said Tobin. “Obviously, there are circumstances where you need a helicopter. But to have it on regular patrol—I don’t think it’s the best thing for our community.”

“It’s a park. It’s not a helicopter landing pad,” said Christine Poff, executive director of the Franklin Park Coalition, about the possibility of the helicopter taking off and landing from there.

It seems no local officials heard about the helicopter patrols before they were announced in a March 23 Boston Globe article. According to the article, the patrols will involve a State Police helicopter with Boston officers riding along. The idea reportedly came from a Boston Police officer who recently flew in helicopter patrols as a soldier in Iraq.

The helicopter is based outside of Boston, so it would need a temporary stopping point here for the patrols. According to the article, Franklin Park and Boston Medical Center are under consideration.

“It’s going to happen,” said State Police spokesperson Det. Lt. Bill Powers in a Gazette interview, adding flights could start as early as May. Boston Police officers will complete training in helicopter-based observation by the end of April, he said.

Powers said the plan is to fly a couple of times a week, not every day, with most flights happening during evenings and nights. Exact flight days will be an operational secret, he said.

Asked about resident fears of noise, Powers said, “I don’t think they’ll be bothered by it.” He said the helicopters will not use searchlights or fly very low during routine patrol, sticking to a standard 400-foot minimum altitude.

“It is a go. We’re just trying to iron out some details,” said Boston Police spokesperson Officer James Kenneally, explaining that further details aren’t available yet. The Mayor’s Office did not return a Gazette phone call for this article.

“We haven’t even been approached about it,” said Mary Hines, spokesperson for the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, about the possible use of Franklin Park.

Powers said he is unaware of any decision yet being made on a landing spot. He said the helicopter would land only twice a night, to pick up and drop off the Boston Police officer riding along. It would not be stored in any Boston location.

Local activist Anastasia Lyman, who has long battled airplane and helicopter noise in JP, said the helicopter patrols should not be allowed without environmental hearings and public input.

Noting how loud the occasional hovering news helicopter is in the neighborhood, Lyman said, “That’s what it’s going to be like with police helicopters, but all the time.”

Lyman has lived in Los Angeles, where police frequently and controversially use helicopters. She said it “terrifying to be in your house with children with a helicopter circling 500 feet overhead.”

Tobin said it is likely that hovering helicopters would make residents fear some major crime was happening around them.

“It seems like the amount of money that would be spent [on a helicopter]…could be used for better crime-fighting techniques on the ground that would not further deteriorate the environment,” Lyman said. “Everyone is applauding more foot patrols. We know that it works.”

State Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez said he hadn’t seen the Globe article and wanted more information, adding, “I’ve never heard of a strategy like that before.” But, he noted, “They’re already in the neighborhood,” describing regular low flights by Coast Guard helicopters. “I’m up for a try” if it helps fight crime, he said.

Powers said the helicopter will be useful in following fleeing suspects, especially in conjunction with gunshot-pinpointing acoustic technology that will soon be installed in some other neighborhoods.

Lyman noted that the Southwest Corridor is already a flight path for private helicopters—one frequently strayed from. Tobin said he gets helicopter noise complaints already with some regularity, making him all the more concerned about police helicopter noise and related effects like searchlights.

“The taking off and landing [in] Franklin Park really adds a whole new dimension to it,” Tobin added.

“Helicopters are really, really loud,” Poff said, explaining they could scare wildlife away from “one of the most fragile ecologies in the city” in Franklin Park.

Poff said such use of Franklin Park actually could destroy crime reduction activities.

“We are very supportive of efforts to settle youth violence in our communities around the park,” she said. “The park is a solution for building community and settling the violence.”

Poff pointed out the only likely helicopter landing spot in the park is the athletic fields, which are regularly filled with youth athletics, festivals, concerts and plays—activities that may help keep kids off the streets.

“You can’t land a helicopter in the middle of that and expect the activities to continue,” she said.

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