I-Team: Tight Budget Grounds Metro's Air Support More Often - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Tight Budget Grounds Metro's Air Support More Often

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LAS VEGAS -- The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's ongoing budget problems are sometimes tough to quantify in terms of what they mean to crime on the streets. But there is one special team where the impact of too few dollars is easy to see.

The air support unit, which flies three different platforms, or helicopters, no longer flies round-the-clock. It's had to cut back on flying time because it can't replace any pilots who retire or leave.

In the past year, there have been more news stories about the air support operation than the previous 10 years combined. Many of those stories have not been positive. There was the rock star marriage proposal incident and the tragic death of a search and rescue officer.

The I-Team was granted unique access to the air support to find out how the team is coping with budget cuts and if there are any changes on the horizon.

Having a birds eye view of spectacular sunsets is one of the side benefits for the dozen pilots in Metro's Air Support Unit. For officers David Gifford and Melissa Wilds, what really gets the blood pumping is same as for any other cop.

"Burglaries, robberies, shooting calls, a lot of missing persons calls. A lot of people don't realize we are the exact same as a patrol officer on the ground. It's just that we are in the air," Gifford said.

They may not have the same kind of hands-on interaction as patrol officers, but air support is rightly considered to be a force multiplier, enhancing whatever is being done down below, and is especially well-suited for certain situations.

"Our favorite, of course, is when people run. That is the most fun because we have a huge advantage," Gifford said.

In years past, Metro allowed its officers to engage in high-speed pursuits of certain criminals, with sometimes tragic results. A greater reliance on helicopters changed all of that.

"Pursuits are very dangerous. We are able to follow them from the air and do it safely so citizens don't get injured," Wilds said.

Any crook who thinks he can give the slip to a helicopter hasn't seen enough episodes of Cops. The Metro platforms are equipped with what they call night sun, lights that illuminate everything below as well as a FLIR system that can track someone based on body heat.

"When we lock on and get them from the air, it is very rare that a person is able to get away from us," said Capt. Charles Hank, Metro Support Operations Bureau.

He oversees the special unit, which has its own spotless hangar and crack maintenance team, but which has taken its lumps in the past year or so. The biggest hit is attrition. The last six pilots to leave the unit have not been replaced due to budget cuts. That loss translates into a significant decrease in flying time.

"We had to cut back on our service time, so we are no longer up 24/7 but seven days a week for 20 hours," Hank said.

Hank says his choppers in the air deter crime, just like a patrol car in a neighborhood. His team is also stretched thin by special assignments. Every time a presidential candidate came to town during the last election, they carried Secret Service details and on New Year's Eve, they worked with Homeland Security teams using special equipment to scan the crowds for potential threats. One of their primary functions -- search and rescue -- was the focus of harsh criticism last year after Officer David VanBuskirk was killed while trying to save a life at Mount Charleston.

"I would be lying to you to tell you that was not the lowest part of my career," Hank said.

Metro did considerable soul searching after the VanBuskirk incident and other problems surfaced. A thorough audit has been completed but not yet released. The unit was also embarrassed by an incident involving a rock star who was given a helicopter ride along that he used to propose marriage to his girlfriend. The captain who okayed the freebie retired before he could be punished, but the timing could not have been worse for a department scrambling for every dollar.

"I think we filled the holes to make sure that won't happen again," Hank said.

Metro officials say an internal audit that began before the VanBuskirk tragedy or the rock star ride along has been completed and changes are already being instituted.

"We just don't have the personnel to be able to fly as much as we'd like to," Gifford said.

Although air support is undermanned compared to previous years, the officers are still up there most of the time offering support to Metro or to other departments.

An OSHA investigation of the VanBuskirk incident is all but complete and it found no violations by the department. Another outside investigation is still underway. The larger internal audit is done and Capt. Hank says 40 percent of the recommended changes have already been implemented, though the public has not yet seen the report.

The pilots did have some advice for the public. They said when you hear a Metro chopper at night, circling your neighborhood over and over, it means they are looking for a bad guy on the run and it's probably not a good time to be out in your backyard.

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