How Metro Air Support of St. Louis Helps Ground Officers Protect the Public
ST LOUIS —
They are the eyes in the sky flying over to help St. Louis area law enforcement protect the public .
Allman reporter Aisha Khan went along for a ride to find out how those choppers are making your tax payer dollars worthwhile.
"If you see our helicopter circling around your area, we are not out there joyriding, we're actually doing a job," said Sergeant Dan Cunningham with the St. Louis County Police Department.
The fleet is made up of five choppers operated by the Metro Air Unit of St. Louis.
The unit has ten officers from both city and county police departments including officers from the St. Charles County Police Department
"If it's a burglar alarm or a burglar in the building the helicopter will respond and check the rooftops and maintain the vigil on the backyard," Cunningham explained, "we check the major infrastructure around St. Louis, the bridges The Arch and help assist with maintaining the security of the area."
Soaring 1,000 feet above ground, Aisha got to get a little taste of what Cunningham does everyday.
The view seems like a silent movie in which the airborne crew, usually two officers act as the eyes for police who are chasing, tracking or arresting suspects or responding to calls on the ground.
Everyday there are at least two helicopters patrolling the sky in approximately four-hour shifts.
"We're looking for a missing elderly, a missing kid or a missing adults," said Cunningham, "we get a lot of calls for Alzheimer's patients."
Each member of the Metro Air Support Unit prior to being selected to fill a pilot’s position with the unit must first be a commissioned member of one of the three participating police departments. Each department individually dictates that candidates for the pilot’s position must complete a minimum of at least three years on patrol prior to applying for any available position. Candidates are selected by their specific departments to fill any opening presented by their department with the Metro Air Support Unit. Once unit members are selected they begin their training as tactical flight officers.
During patrol, while one officer operates the air craft, the co-pilot serves as a lookout and is in contact with dispatch and the ground units.
"They operate the moving map system the police radios and the search light," he said, "we've also got a video dialing system on the helicopter so we can show the officers on the ground a bird's eye view of what's going on."
The chopper is also used for crowd control, something that was common during the time of the Ferguson riots.
"Helping out at night, often times we would handle calls around the area for officer safety especially in an area where the call was at the end of a cul de sac, we would come in with a night camera a thermal imager just to make sure the call was legitimate," he said.
The budget is about $300,000 to $500,000 a year that includes salaries, chopper maintenance and fuel costs.
The unit's newest helicopter was purchased in 2012 for $2.1 million through a grant from the Port Authority. The 2009 helicopter cost $1.8 million and was purchased through a grant from Homeland Security (STARRS). The two older helicopters were purchased in the mid 80's for around $300,000 through asset forfeiture money.
Other items that the unit has obtained over the years from the East-West Gateway Council of Governments (Homeland Security office for the St. Louis region) are spot lights, forward looking infrared, video downlink systems, cockpit modifications, flight helmets, moving map systems and survival flight vests.
Cunningham said that the unit is on pace to fly another 2000 hours this year.
"Our bread and butter is helping the police officers on the ground, trying to make their jobs a little easier," he said.
In 2015, the unit helped locate7 missing persons, responded to1,780 calls for service and helped make 239 arrests.