The city council of Columbus, Ohio, has approved US$671,000 to upgrade its $3.4 million police helicopter with additional technology. The motion to equip the helicopter was passed by a 5-2 vote on 22 November.
The funds, which will be drawn from the police’s drug money seizure fund, will be used to equip the Bell 407GXi aircraft with a range of technology including a $473,000-thermal imaging camera, computer systems and spotlights.
The aircraft, which was previously approved unanimously for purchase by the council in November 2019, has sat unused by the city’s police force for over a year due to the lack of equipment.
According to Police Commander Robert Sagle, who oversees the helicopter unit, typically the division would equip new helicopters from the aircraft that they were replacing. However, the city’s decision to change manufacturers with the new purchase meant that the technology used to equip the city’s older McDonnell Douglas MD530F aircraft fleet, which have been flying since 1996, meant that this was not possible for the police’s most recent acquisition.
The decision to equip the helicopter comes despite increasing opposition to their use, with the Columbus Dispatch reporting ‘vocal citizen opposition to Columbus police’s large police helicopter program, including its high cost, noise and neighborhood intrusiveness.’
In response, the city council decided in favour of reducing the police helicopter from six to four aircraft by a narrow 4-3 vote in September 2019. However, the decision to equip the new helicopter effectively increases the police fleet to five aircraft.
According to Elizabeth Brown, one of the two councillors who voted against fitting out the helicopter: “By purchasing this equipment tonight, we're effectively adding a helicopter to the fleet.”
However, fellow council member Rob Dorans, who voted in favour of equipping the helicopter said that the council needed to balance citizen complaints with the need to manage rising crime rates in the city. Dorans previously supported reducing the fleet size last year.