Few people know that the Czechoslovak Air Security Force, a predecessor of the current Police Aviation Department, was the very first in the world to use a helicopter for police duties. In July this year, it will be 71 years since this historical event. And although at that time helicopters were rare, nowadays they present the majority of police aviation department fleets worldwide. This is because their deployment brings unparalleled versatility and capability anywhere regardless of ground infrastructure. This article describes some interesting characteristics of the European police aviation forces.
The creation of police aviation units goes back to the period between the world wars. Since by international treaty, countries such as Germany and Hungary were not allowed to set up an air force or indeed any offensive forces at all, they decided to bypass the legal restriction by creating a police force intended formally for law enforcement focused on domestic issues. Nevertheless, it soon became obvious that it was in this manner that Germany in practice created its Luftwaffe. At that time, airspace defence was considered by many nations to be part of law enforcement, because although it did deal with military threats, more frequently it handled civilian ones (airplanes crossing domestic airspace due to loss of navigation etc.). True police aviation units, frequently set up under the Ministry of Interior and supporting the emergency services with the police being just one of the operators, began to be established in the post-war era.
Currently there is no established standard for police aviation units. The Chicago Convention on civil aviation only prescribes that countries set up rules for both police and state aviation which as far as practically possible are similar to civil aviation rules, with full jurisdiction of each state over its police aviation rules. The reason for such an exemption from the general scheme of the EU-coordinated approach is the need to deviate from these standards during many typical police missions. In general, European police units are registered under military, police and even civilian rules with no standards. For example, the Italian Carabinieri aviation department forms part of the local gendarmerie and is subject to military standards set by the Ministry of Defence.
The Czech Police Aviation Department is defined as a “police air force” and the very small Norwegian police squadron follows civilian rules. In spite of this, some units are even responsible for the creation of secondary legislation in the position of expert. Just as subordination to the legal regime varies greatly, so does subordination to internal authorities. Federal states such as Germany have a centrally directed federal police aviation squadron, but the majority of routine police work is done by the police units established by individual federal states, some of which have no police aviation unit at all. Some police squadrons belong to the Ministry of the Interior, some to the police and some to the military organized gendarmerie.
In addition, the size of the police units varies greatly. Among the smallest ones that of Luxembourg may be mentioned, with its single helicopter, while at the opposite end of the scale are the Italian, Spanish or French police squadrons with dozens of helicopters or Germany with more than one hundred. This is reflected in an entire range of densities for coverage by police aviation. While in Germany each police helicopter is statistically linked to less than 2000 km² of the country, in Norway each helicopter covers an area of 285,000 km². The same applies to the number of inhabitants, where in Sweden one helicopter covers 1.7 million citizens, while in Belgium it is 11 million.
A WIDE RANGE OF TASKS
Every police unit is special and performs a unique combination of tasks. Irrespective of the organisation scheme, the main task for all police aviation units is monitoring criminal activities and providing law enforcement. The recording instruments described below permit long-range documentation of criminal activities as well as providing evidence of the legality of the police’s approach. Because of the perfect view from a helicopter even in forests or urban areas, helicopters are frequently used to help during the arrest of those hiding from justice or in the search for missing persons, as well as for coverage of VIPs ground or aerial transport. Occasionally or during peak risk, many police aviation squadrons monitor key infrastructure such as water reservoirs or nuclear power plants. A natural part of their tasks is the transport and resupply of special units, such as explosives squads, police prosecutors or SWAT teams.
One very specific task is traffic monitoring. This was the very first police task ever performed with a helicopter. The Czechoslovak police used a VR-3 helicopter to monitor the road traffic at the Sokol festival in July 1948, one of the largest mass events in Prague in the post-war era. Although modern cities are usually equipped with GSM or other traffic monitoring and command systems, aerial support is still very welcome for mass events and seasonal peaks. It permits the quick repositioning of the helicopter over the area of interest, with surveillance of areas not covered by ground systems.
A helicopter, especially if capable of transmitting camera footage to a ground command centre, allows easy adjustment of traffic lights to minimise jams. For many countries, an integral part of police missions is border area recognition and surveillance. Especially in the Nordic countries and the Netherlands police helicopters are also used for environmental pollution monitoring and the search for criminal activities in this field, including monitoring compliance with the laws on fishery, hunting or pollution. The Austrian police squadron, for example, monitors radiation pollution in addition and the Dutch police are even responsible for monitoring boats and ships, including security at large sea ports.
The surveillance of airspace movements is normally transferred to military units or dedicated control centres, but some police units are still responsible for the identification of “slow and low” flying objects such as tourist planes, balloons and ULL airplanes. The new task of drone elimination has arisen over the past year, with several methods deployed to capture these.
Although many police aviation units are subordinated to the Police Force or the Ministry of the Interior, many of them provide support to the entire emergency services including the Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS), the Mountain Rescue Service, the Fire Brigade, the Coastguard and others, including the operators of critical infrastructure such as power lines or telecommunication centres. This broad utilisation is usually seen in smaller countries not able to operate independent aviation units for each branch of the emergency services. For example, the current HEMS interior is modular and installed on movable platform with a very quick change of helicopter configuration. A change of mission from police to emergency may take just an hour or so depending on the selected special equipment models.
When it comes to the configuration of police helicopters, all western producers offer standardized features designed specifically for police use. The models most used are small helicopters with a seating capacity of 2+6 or 2+8 as those provide an excellent balance between cost of operation and capability. Among the most widespread we may mention the Airbus Helicopters H135 and H145 models, while for middle-sized helicopters the Bell 412 may be mentioned as the benchmark in many countries. For all of these, the police can select the installation of an FLIR searching system with IR and daylight cameras as well as a laser pointer.
Obviously with the advanced digitisation of police work a downlink allowing transmission of the FLIR footage to the ground control station may be purchased as standard. Some advanced police forces such as the Dutch Royal Police Force are even using software permitting flight route prediction based on area criminal records data. Such artificial intelligence implementation permits higher efficiency of operation resulting directly in a decrease in crime. The IR seeker of the FLIR permits the easy location of people in both day and night conditions even if they are hiding, with extra capabilities in the monitoring and recording of criminal activities. For example, IR sensors are frequently used to locate drug farms or burglars in cottage areas without entering any house. Another standard option is the searchlight, optionally with the IR filter making the light beam invisible for all persons without personal IR spectrum viewing aids.
All those items may be purchased as modular equipment allowing easy disassembly for any change of helicopter configuration. Some police units have purchased loudspeakers, but these can be difficult to use as they are mixed with the noise of the helicopter itself and voice commands are not easy to hear and recognise. As an example of very unusual equipment one might mention the Polish aviation department, which makes use of standard police red rotation flash beacons on some of its helicopters. When a helicopter is equipped for SWAT teams extraction, it may be equipped with beams for fast rope attachment or rappelling ropes as well as a rescue winch for use in emergency evacuations. Additionally, special rails and steps may be acquired as well.
The police use of helicopters is today an inseparable part of an operational law enforcement system. While in the US, the police helicopter is take to be a standard part of the police equipment inventory, in Europe it is still exceptional and not in everyday use. Nevertheless, with advanced threats and expectations of reduced police response time, aviation squadrons are today expanding in almost all countries. And this not only in manned flight, but also in unmanned flight, with more and more units integrating UAVs into their structures. The future will be a mixed fleet of both manned helicopters and UAVs, all operating under the police.
Text: Jakub Fojtík
Photo: author, archive