HOUSTON—Houston’s police helicopters once were almost a ubiquitous sight over the city, swooping above the streets at all hours in a never-ending support role for officers chasing crooks on the ground.
Now, they spend most of their time on the ground, parked in the hangar or waiting on the tarmac at Hobby Airport, conspicuous victims of city budget cuts. And now, the head of Houston’s biggest police union suggests city council needs to find some way to put the birds back in the air around the clock.
“We just think city council is going to have to step up and say, ‘Chief, we appreciate you trying to help us out with the budget, but we’re going to find money elsewhere and give you additional funds so that we can get those helicopters up for a significant more amount of time,” said Ray Hunt, the president of the Houston Police Officers Union.
KHOU 11 News first reported on the HPD helicopter cutbacks last summer, when police sources complained that the chopper fleet was spending too much time on the ground. Severe budget constraints triggered by the city’s financial squeeze eventually led Chief Charles McLelland to slash spending for fuel and maintenance of the HPD helicopters generations of officers have come to call “Fox Units.” McLelland ultimately discontinued the decades-old practice of keeping HPD helicopters in the air 24 hours a day.
That dramatic decline in service from a law enforcement tool that police on the street took for granted triggered immediate complaints. Patrol officers pursuing stolen cars, for example, routinely call for “a Fox” to join the chase so they won’t lose track of fleeing thieves.
“Try to get a clearance from Hobby Airport to take off and you’re looking at a ten-to-fifteen minute process,” Hunt said. “And most situations like that are over in ten-to-fifteen minutes. So if they’re not up there for a significant amount of time—where they can simply start heading to a call where they’re already in flight—you’re going to have a delay that we just don’t think is acceptable.”
Still, critics of the slashed chopper hours carefully avoid directing their complaints toward the police chief. One of the most vocal critics last summer was C.O. Bradford, the former Houston police chief who is now serving on city council. But today his remarks are more restrained. Indeed, even the police union leader doesn’t want to sound critical of McClelland, whom he praises as one of the best chiefs in recent Houston history.
“I’ll say this: They’re not in the air as often as I would like to have them in the air,” Bradford now says. “They’re not in the air as many hours as when I was police chief and as prior police chiefs. But that’s not due to Chief McLelland making a choice. That is due to budget resources.”
Bradford now says he doesn’t want to micromanage the police chief, who’s faced the daunting task of keeping crime rates down at a time of declining law enforcement budgets.
“I’ve had discussions with Chief McLelland,” Bradford said. “He’s assured me that he’s going to allocate additional resources to the helicopter division. That’s good. That’s good news. Officers are safer if, in fact, those helicopters are in the air. Citizens can feel safer.”
A spokesman for the chief says he’s trying to find money from any source he can—from grants to donations—to pump more funds into the helicopter fleet. The leader of the city’s largest police union makes it clear that he believes the ball is in the city council’s court.
“With the cost that it costs to operate these helicopters, at $450 to $500 an hour, you can see how quickly that can add up,” Hunt said. “And I think if the chief went in there to a council that’s looking at very, very tight budget times and asked for an additional million dollars in airplane fuel, he’s going to get laughed right out of council.”
That deflects focus from the police chief, but the ideal time for council members to propose new appropriations has already passed. Houston City Council just passed a new annual budget last week, a grueling process in which every councilmember lobbies for amendments to the budget. Still, the union head believes the city will find a way to have its largely grounded helicopters spend more time in the air.
“We’re confident that this chief is going to do what he can to find the funding to get those helicopters up there longer,” Hunt said.