Choppers on Patrol?

May 11, 2007
By

LOU MANCINELLI

Boston police say ‘no’; State Police say ‘yes’

PARKSIDE—In a complete reversal from previous remarks made by a department spokesperson at the end of April, Boston Police Department (BPD) Superintendent Robert Dunford said the BPD has no plans to use helicopters for regular police patrols in Boston.

Dunford made the statement at a Boston City Council hearing May 1 at the William J. Devine Golf Course Function Hall in Franklin Park. He said the idea was discussed 20 years ago but did not evolve for a number of reasons, including cost.

This contradicts statements made by State Police. The hearing was recessed until further discussion, but councilors and residents voiced strong opposition to the use of choppers for a regular patrol over Boston.

A Boston police officer does ride along as an observer in a State Police helicopter over the city when it is available, which is at least once a week, said BPD Deputy Superintendent Rafael Ruiz. Both officers maintained at the hearing it was not a patrol.

The State Police, however, describe it differently.

“It is a patrol,” said Lt. Sharon Costine of the State Police Airwing unit, in a Gazette interview days after the hearing.

According to Costine, BPD Commissioner Ed Davis approached State Police Col. Mark Delaney with the request for use of the chopper to assist the BPD. She said smaller towns throughout the state often request the same.

Five BPD officers have been trained to ride along as observers in a regular state patrol over the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which includes Boston, at least a few times a week, according to Costine. She said the Airwing has operated for 30 years and operates at altitudes as directed by Air Traffic Control at Logan Airport determined by the specific day and time.

“They are the eyes and the ears in the sky,” said Costine.

“This whole thing has been botched communication from the get-go,” said local City Councilor John Tobin in a telephone interview last week, in response to the State Police comments. “Someone is not talking to someone.”

“I’m not a police officer, and I’m not a safety expert,” said Tobin. “We’re all trying to work together, but to have regular patrols over the city like we’re living in some police state—why don’t you just call in the National Guard while you’re at it.”

Council hearing
The hearing was called in response to reports made in a March Boston Globe article and a later Gazette article about BPD initiating a helicopter patrol program and after a helicopter landed unannounced in Franklin Park March 30. Councilors were concerned the program could be initiated without any pubic dialogue.

Dunford said he had no idea how or where the Globe reporter got the information about the program, but it was never an idea.

A March 23 Boston Globe article quoted BPD Deputy Superintendent
Daniel P. Linskey saying, “We want to add it [helicopter patrols] into our crime fighting strategy. I would love to have a helicopter up, so when shots come in on our new acoustic gunshot technology…you have the chopper in the area.”

That article also quoted Davis saying, “There needs to be a public notification campaign. People will be afraid if it just swoops into a neighborhood and they don’t know what it’s about.”

BPD spokesperson Officer James Kenneally previously told the Gazette officers “were up there seeing what it’s like.” And State Police spokesperson Det. Lt. Bill Powers said, “I don’t think they’ll be bothered by it,” referring to residents reactions to regular patrols.

Dunford hammered the point that the BPD does not have regular helicopter patrol plans as he addressed the meeting’s chair, City Councilor Charles Yancey.

According to Dunford, that helicopter is stationed at either an airport north or south of Boston.

In a separate interview after the hearing, Costine said the State Police chopper flies out of three separate airports located in Lawrence, Plymouth and Westover. She said the BPD officer rides along for an eight-hour shift. There was no representative from the State Police at the hearing.

“It may be three times one week and one another,” said Ruiz in an interview after the hearing. He said he did not know any more details. According to Dunford, the program was initiated a few months ago. He maintained it is not a regular BPD patrol.

Local residents voiced their concerns about noise and what some described as a militarized policing tactic. Not one of over 15 audience members who testified at the hearing supported the idea. About 75 people attended, but the crowd fizzled out soon after BPD comments stating there were never any plans for regular patrols or to land a chopper in the park.

City Councilor Chuck Turner—the sponsor of the hearing—called for it to be recessed until a representative from the BPD with the authority to make some sort of commitment in writing that guarantees increased communication between local officials, affected residents and the BPD about helicopter patrols and landings anywhere in Boston was present.

Councilors Tobin, Yancey, Sam Yoon, Felix Arroyo, Stephen Murphy and Maureen Feeney also announced their support for the hearing. Councilors insist more discussion about the topic is needed.

According to Dunford, the BPD does not have its own helicopter and uses one owned by the State Police for specific missions, like large demonstrations or parades and emergencies.

Ruiz said helicopters help police monitor large gatherings and determine where to send resources. He said when a BPD officer rides along in the state chopper the observed locations are based on intelligence.

According to Ruiz, Franklin Park has been used as a landing spot on three occasions: twice in the past during the Caribbean Festival and once, March 30, this year. He said a helicopter would not ever land in the park again, except in the case of an emergency.

This statement was made after a Gazette article reported Franklin Park was no longer a potential landing spot for a chopper.

Dunford said Franklin Park was chosen for a March 30 landing because it is a large, wide open space and it was convenient and available. A homicide detective needed to be in the air to take pictures of a crime scene for an ongoing investigation, he said.

Yancey said convenience was not an acceptable rationale for landing unannounced in the park.

According to Boston Parks and Recreation Department Commissioner Antonia Pollak, the parks department was not notified before the March 30 landing.

“I assure the public, indeed, if ever there was a discussion about a permanent location—which there never was—we would have a public process probably to beat all public processes,” she said.

“I am 100 percent opposed to helicopters occupying Franklin Park or any site in the city,” said Tobin at the hearing. Tobin said the lack of communication is a problem. “To be an elected official and to read about this in the Boston Globe is troubling,” he said.

Residents also made potent comments opposed to helicopter patrols.

“I lived in Los Angeles for years and helicopters create a war zone atmosphere,” said Bruce Wallin, co-chair of the West Roxbury Courthouse Neighborhood Association. “It tends to drive out stable residents,” he said.

Wallin said as a political scientist he is wary when the BPD uses words like “plan” and “confer.”

“We want something in writing over the signature of BPD Commissioner Ed Davis, over the signature of Mayor Thomas Menino [and other elected officials],” he said.

“I don’t want state helicopters flying over our neighborhoods thinking they can intercept criminals,” said Parkside resident Leslie Belay. “This is an extension of the war on terror turned against the citizens of Boston. It is a military tactic.”

Belay said the best way to combat crime is for officers to get out of their cruisers and walk the streets. She said Boston needs rangers on horseback and officers on foot.

Jonathan McCurdy of the Franklin Park Coalition and Stonybrook Neighborhood Association echoed those comments. He said Boston needs more officers on foot. “People get the sense something is wrong when you see a helicopter,” said McCurdy.

“This project was a surprise,” said Bill Mitchell. “Whatever it is, and whatever it will be, is a surprise. The idea of community policing is ‘no surprises.’ You get together and talk.”

Mitchell said street workers were an indispensable community policing resource, but have disappeared over the years.

“It creates a siege mentality,” said Walter Pollard, who said he served in the US military. “We’ve done nothing wrong.” Pollard said it seems police hate to hear an idea from someone who isn’t a police officer, but residents need to organize and say, “No. You cannot do this.” He said police should be out of their cars, walking or riding bikes through the neighborhoods.

Lisa-Maria Menta said she grew up in L.A., and there is no peace because of the helicopter patrols. She said she could understand the need for choppers in LA because it is such a vast area, but Boston is not.

“We have good institutions in every community,” said Menta. “We can take care of our own. We don’t need choppers.” She asked if the helicopters were planning to fly low at 400 feet at night with no searchlights, as police previously told the Gazette, what would officers be able to see? Menta suggested the flights could be used to desensitize the community to noise and other issues before patrols become a regular thing.

Dunford insisted the BPD has no such plans. Ruiz said he understands the community’s concerns, but helicopters are useful at times.

“There is still work to do,” said Yancey.

Turner urged residents to call their city councilor if they hear or see helicopters. “We need to develop a strategy,” he said.

Tobin’s office can be contacted by calling 635-4220.

Information about the State Police Airwing unit can be found at www.mass.gov/msp, under the Tactical Operations tab on the left side of the page under Key Resources.

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