Helicopters won’t land in park

April 13, 2007
By

JOHN RUCH

Franklin Park will not be a landing pad for a Boston Police helicopter, the department told the Gazette last week in the wake of community complaints and a test-flight landing in the park.

“That is not being considered as a [take-off/landing] spot,” Boston Police Department (BPD) spokesperson Officer James Kenneally said about Franklin Park. “The answer is no.”

Meanwhile, the Boston City Council is planning a hearing about the new helicopter patrol idea, as noise and policing methods remain concerns.

“There are so many unanswered questions,” said Egleston Square-area City Councilor Chuck Turner, who sponsored the call for a hearing. He said the plan, announced suddenly in a Boston Globe article last month, came “with no dialogue. It’s no way to treat people.”

“Right now, the strategy doesn’t make sense,” Turner said.

Local City Councilor John Tobin has also opposed the idea, citing noise impacts.

The plan involves Boston Police officers riding along in a State Police helicopter at least a couple of days a week, possibly starting in May. The patrols would mostly be at night, though exact dates would be secret, according to the State Police. The available helicopters are based outside of Boston, so the aircraft would need a landing spot in the city to pick up and drop off the Boston officers.

Franklin Park was originally on police radar as a landing site. A State Police helicopter landed in the park’s Playstead field on the afternoon of March 30, with many BPD officers walking around the area, according to Christine Poff, executive director of the Franklin Park Coalition.

Kenneally said the landing was made during a flight with BPD officers who were “up there seeing what it’s like.” He said the landing was in response to an unspecified crime incident that happened to be called in at that time. But the park will not be the routine landing spot, he said, adding that no site has been chosen yet.

“The Franklin Park [landing] was more the exception to the rule than the rule itself,” Kenneally said.

The Boston Parks and Recreation Department was also told the park is off the table, according to spokesperson Mary Hines. She said she is unaware of any direct communication between BPD and the parks department about the idea, but added, “I think they got the message loud and clear.”

While Franklin Park will be spared the intense noise of helicopter landings, some residents and officials remain concerned about the noise of the general patrols.

“I don’t think they’ll be bothered by it,” State Police spokesperson Det. Lt. Bill Powers previously told the Gazette, noting the helicopter will fly at least 400 feet above the city during patrols.

“Helicopters make noise,” acknowledged Capt. Kelley McCormick, commander of the local E-13 police station, in a Gazette interview. “Helicopters flying over houses are inherently disruptive.”

But, McCormick said, “This is not a movie set,” explaining that the helicopter will not be buzzing low over houses except in an emergency.

“We also understand with the community, we need noise mitigation,” McCormick said. “I know people in Jamaica Plain are sensitive to airport noise issues.”

No realistic claim about helicopter noise can be made without a scientific study, according to JP resident Adam Klauber, an environmental acoustics analyst with the US Department of Transportation whose day job is measuring the noise impacts of aircraft on national parks.

Klauber said in a Gazette interview that it is crucial to judge noise impacts “in a scientific manner, not just saying, ‘It’s not going to be that loud.’ OK, what’s that mean?”

Klauber said acoustic analysis in urban environments now can be done easily with sophisticated hand-held devices. “The science is good enough and inexpensive enough,” he said.

Many factors determine the actual impact of noise, and the results can be surprising, Klauber said. For example, he noted, aircraft noise can be disruptive even when it’s not as loud as other sounds in the area, because of its particular frequency.

The type of terrain, the amount of vegetation and existing background noise all affect noise impact, Klauber said. The main criterion for judging whether sound is disruptive to people is “speech interference”—how close you have
to stand to someone to be heard during the noise, he said.

“It’s more difficult to gauge impacts on wildlife unless you have clearly documented communication needs between species—say, birds mating,” he said.

McCormick said it is important for the public to be educated about the benefits of a helicopter patrol, saying the message is, “This is an asset. This is a friend.”

He noted that its equipment will include an infrared camera that can see body heat in the dark—something that could be useful for finding people lost in Jamaica Pond Park, Arnold Arboretum or Franklin Park. The helicopter will have a video camera as well.

“It will respond to a lot more than just ‘shots fired’ [calls],” McCormick said. “We may be able to use it for things we never really thought about before.”

Turner said he isn’t so sure of the benefits of a helicopter patrol, linking it to what he calls a tactic of “suppression” that ultimately won’t solve crime in the area. [See related story.]

“It’s not merely the opposite of community policing, it’s destructive to it,” said JP resident Bill Mitchell, noting that the helicopter patrol has been planned privately. “This is a leading indicator of a whole different mentality. What else are they planning? How are we going to trust them now?”

Mitchell, who was initially concerned about the impacts on Franklin Park near his house, likened the helicopter plan to noisy flying police vehicles in science fiction.

“That’s what we’re going for, is the ‘Blade Runner’ model of policing,” he said.