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Calif. PD sees purchase of plane with an officer in the sky equal to six officers on the ground

Modesto Police Dept. explains the purchase of a plane as a force multiplier and a safer way to pursue fleeing vehicles

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Modesto police are proposing to purchase a GippsAero GA8. They say the CHP uses the aircraft. The same model of plane police want to purchase is pictured.

Modesto Police Department

By Kevin Valine
The Modesto Bee

MODESTO, Calif. — The Modesto Police Department could have its own plane flying over the city as early as mid-April if the City Council approves the purchase at its Tuesday meeting.

The department wants to buy a 2012 GippsAero GA8 equipped with a high-tech camera and other gear at a cost of about $741,000. The department would pay for the single-engine plane with money from its traffic safety and state law enforcement supplemental funds.

Assistant Chief of Police Ivan Valencia said the traffic fund cannot be used to hire officers. He said while the other fund can be used for that, it would not be wise because it is a state grant and the amount varies widely from year to year.

The aircraft is substantially cheaper to buy and maintain than a helicopter, Valencia said, and the plane’s high-tech camera system mimics the benefits of a helicopter that can hover over a crime scene. The GA8 flies at 60 to 150 mph.

He called the airplane “a police car in the sky” that would respond to the same calls for service as patrol officers on the ground.

The airplane’s two-person crew would consist of a pilot and a police officer acting as an observer. It could be in the air about 20 hours a week. When and where it flies would be based on a Police Department analysis of crime trends and other factors.

Equal to six officers

Valencia said the aircraft will act as a force multiplier because it is the equivalent of at least six patrol officers on the ground. The plane can respond faster than officers and capture the evidence they need to cite a speeding driver or arrest a burglar, he said.

Now if the police receive a call about a reckless driver running red lights on McHenry Avenue, the driver may be gone by the time officers arrive. But Valencia said the driver can’t escape the airplane’s high-tech camera, which functions day or night.

He said if the plane is flying over downtown when that McHenry reckless driver call comes in, the officer in the plane can enter the address into the camera and it will immediately start recording a live feed. The airplane is equipped with a FLIR Star Safire 380 HD imaging system. Valencia said it can record from great distances but he could not immediately provide specifics.

The plane can follow the reckless driver and provide video, photos and other information to officers on the ground. Valencia said the Star Safire video is the evidence officers need to cite or arrest the driver.

Because the airplane can quickly respond to calls for service, capture the suspects on video and follow them, it significantly increases authorities’ ability to arrest and prosecute suspects, he said. That can make a huge difference in reducing the number of burglaries and robberies, which, he said, often are committed by the same small group of criminals.

The GA8’s camera system also can capture video from illegal sideshows in which drivers spin doughnuts and perform other risky stunts. These drivers can take over streets. Valencia said the video can be used to gather warrants to temporarily impound the cars.

And vehicle pursuits of fleeing suspects can be less dangerous because officers on the ground can pull back and reduce their speed while the plane follows the suspects.

Valencia said the plane typically would fly at 1,500 feet elevation but can be flown at 3,000 so it won’t be seen from the ground. He said helicopters typically fly at 1,000 feet. The plane also can look for missing people and help with gang and drug operations.

It would lessen the risk for officers and the people they encounter. Valencia said the plane’s camera can give officers on the ground such information as whether a suspect is armed or has dogs, whether there are other people with him, and his behavior.

“The livestream information is just so important,” the assistant chief said. “We want the human-to-human contact to avoid surprises.”

But he said the high-tech camera system is not the type of surveillance system that always is recording and captures a panoramic view of what’s below it.

CHP flies this model

The GippsAero GA8 is a light utility aircraft that can be used for search and rescue, surveillance and observation, and for carrying freight or skydivers. It can carry seven passengers.

In a presentation this month to a City Council committee, Valencia said the aircraft is used by the San Bernardino and Orange County sheriff’s departments, the California and Ohio highway patrols and the U.S. Civil Air Patrol.

Valencia has said that as part of its research, the Police Department checked with other law enforcement agencies that use this aircraft. The only complaint was it was not fast enough for agencies that need it to fly long distances, but he added it’s fast enough for Modesto.

Valencia said none of the agencies reported safety concerns and a properly maintained GippsAero GA8 lasts 40 to 50 years.

An Australian company manufactured the GippsAero. There are not many GA8 models in use. Media reports put the number at roughly 250 globally. There are 61 in the United States, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

That includes seven with the CHP and 16 with Civil Air Patrol or Air Force Auxiliary Civil Air Patrol based at Alabama’s Maxwell Air Force Base, according to the FAA. The sheriff’s departments in Orange and San Bernardino counties have one each.

Plane in Pennsylvania

The aircraft the Police Department wants was purchased originally by Pennsylvania for its attorney general’s office. If the City Council approves the purchase, Modesto would pay $8,800 for a pilot to fly the plane across the country. That cost includes fuel for the plane and lodging for the pilot.

If approved by the council, Modesto actually would be buying the plane from Southern California-based CNC Technologies. Valencia said Pennsylvania is trading in its GA8 airplane with CNC Technologies for an upgraded one.

Valencia said Modesto recently had the plane inspected by an FAA-certified mechanic. Valencia said the plane has a complete set of maintenance logs and they’ve been reviewed as well.

“Everyone who has seen this plane tells us it is in immaculate shape,” he said. "... From the photos we’ve seen, you’d think it’s a new plane.”

He said if the council approves the purchase, the plane could be flown here by the end of March, as long as the weather cooperates, and could be patrolling Modesto about two weeks later.

The GA8’s roughly $741,000 purchase price breaks down to $550,000 for the aircraft, $135,000 for the camera and other gear, $1,800 for an escrow free and $53,978 in sales tax. The city also could pay an $800 inspection fee.

A Police Department report states it would cost about $394,000 annually to maintain and operate the aircraft. That includes $60,000 to pay part-time, commercially rated civilian pilots to fly it.

The City Council meets at 5:30 p.m. in the basement chambers of Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St. Residents also can watch and participate over Zoom. The meeting ID is 869 4597 0570 and the passcode is 84326.

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