Chopper “patrol” confusion reigns

John Ruch

The Boston Police Department (BPD) absolutely will not patrol the city with a helicopter, BPD officials insisted at a May Boston City Council hearing.

But on Aug. 29, the Boston Globe, quoting BPD officials, reported on the success of BPD helicopter patrols that have been flying a regular Thursday-through-Saturday flight schedule since May.

Complaining about the “contradiction,” Egleston Square-area City Councilor Chuck Turner told the Gazette he will hold another hearing “to find out why [the BPD] is doing what they told us they wouldn’t be doing.”

“We were told the exact opposite of this at the hearing,” said local City Councilor John Tobin, backing Turner’s call for a second hearing.

“We were told at that meeting there were not going to be regular patrols, and now here comes an article about how effective they were,” Tobin said. “It’s almost like they were asking forgiveness through the article rather than asking permission.”

BPD spokesperson Elaine Driscoll told the Gazette that the helicopter patrols have evolved into something more regular.

“When it began, we would join the State Police [helicopter flights] when schedules allowed,” Driscoll said in an e-mail to the Gazette. “[Now,] we have been trying to have a presence in the helicopter mostly on Friday and Saturday nights and sometimes on Thursday during the day.”

Driscoll described the BPD as “‘wading’ into this new initiative and closely monitoring [the patrols’] activities.”

“We will continue to monitor the activities of the helicopter closely,” she said. “There is no current set future plan.”

The controversy is only the latest twist in the BPD’s murky use of a State Police helicopter that has left local elected officials complaining of police secrecy and mixed messages.

The BPD helicopter idea first appeared in a March Boston Globe article, which said the plan was suggested by an officer who recently flew in helicopter patrols in Iraq. The article outlined a plan for BPD officers to ride along in a State Police helicopter over the city on a secret schedule, with Franklin Park as a possible landing spot. BPD officials confirmed the general plan to the Gazette at that time.

While BPD officials were quoted extensively in the article, the department apparently did not notify any local elected officials ahead of time, sparking outrage about lack of input and possible noise impacts. Community protests over the possible use of Franklin Park ended that part of the plan and led to the City Council hearing in May.

At that hearing, BPD Superintendent Robert Dunford repeatedly insisted that the BPD did not plan a regular helicopter patrol, but instead would ride along during occasional State Police flights. He said the March Globe article was incorrect and questioned its sources of information, though it had clearly quoted BPD officials.

Adding to the confusion, the State Police later contradicted Dunford. “It is a patrol,” a State Police spokesperson told the Gazette at that time.

BPD Commissioner Ed Davis told the Gazette in July that there had been no increase in BPD helicopter flights, indicating that a regular patrol schedule had not been adopted.

The latest Globe article does not quote any BPD official using the term “patrol.” But it does report claims that the BPD has foiled many crimes with the helicopter since May. It also reports, without naming a source, that the helicopter patrols regularly all day on Thursdays and Fridays and on Saturday evening—slightly different than the schedule Driscoll gave to the Gazette.

Driscoll told the Gazette that the helicopters do not patrol any particular area and are still subject to being called away elsewhere on State Police business.

“My understanding was…that they weren’t planning any regular flights,” Turner said. “Their plans need to be discussed publicly.”

Tobin agreed with Turner’s position. “I still don’t understand what’s wrong with talking to the community,” Tobin said.

“We would be happy to have a discussion with both Councilor Turner and Councilor Tobin to hear their concerns,” Driscoll said.

“I’d like to see the number of arrests they made via helicopter,” Tobin said. “I’m not saying it didn’t happen. I’d like to see the numbers.”

Of BPD officers, he said, “I’d rather see them walking beats in districts in the neighborhood.”

Driscoll said the helicopter patrols “have experienced several successes as of late.” She cited an incident featured in the Globe article where the helicopter assisted ground units in tracking a suspect allegedly carrying a firearm in the crowds at Franklin Park’s Caribbean Festival last month.

Turner already planned to call for a council hearing this fall, about the issue of helicopter traffic in general, amid complaints about increased flights by medical and news choppers. He said the police helicopter patrol hearing would be separate from that.

Tobin said helicopter noise remains a problem, and said helicopter patrols run counter to city restrictions on noisy practices like trick car mufflers and construction blasting.

Tobin said he continues to get helicopter noise complaints from constituents “all the time.”

“I don’t know what to tell them, because nobody told me,” he said.

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