'Hide-and-seek champions': Minn. State Patrol pilots key to nabbing reckless drivers

Two pilots discuss their role in the force's recent crackdown on speeders


By Tim Harlow
Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — When State Patrol troopers on the ground need extra help in tracking down drivers fleeing traffic stops, Michael Olson and Jim Englin take to the skies.

Call it a backup from above.

Minnesota State Patrol

Englin and Olson are two of the nine pilots with the State Patrol's busy Flight Division, whose job it is to follow vehicles when a ground pursuit might not be safe — and then direct troopers or police to a suspect's location to make an arrest.

"We are the state hide-and-seek champions," said Englin, who has been a pilot with the patrol for 17 of his 25 years on the force. "They try to run, but we are going to get you."

For 10 nights in February, the pilots were in the air as the State Patrol launched its Highway Enforcement for Aggressive Traffic (HEAT) driving enforcement and education campaign to crack down on speeding and aggressive drivers in the metro area.

During the HEAT campaign, troopers stopped 516 vehicles for speeding and arrested 23 people for drunken driving and six people with outstanding warrants. Numbers released last week by the patrol show that officers cited 80 people for driving without a valid license, 22 for violating the hands-free cellphone law, 13 for not moving over for a stopped emergency vehicle with flashing lights, and six for not wearing seatbelts.

Englin and Olson, who jokingly refer to themselves as "Starsky and Hutch" in a nod to the 1970s TV detectives, followed scores of motorists during HEAT who were allegedly speeding, driving recklessly or suspected to be drunk and fled when troopers tried to stop them.

The pair also flew missions for other law enforcement agencies requesting help in finding armed car thieves, a man who violated a no-contact order and another suspect who had multiple felony and gross misdemeanor warrants. Without the Flight Division, Englin said, "most of them would have gotten away."

In one case, troopers terminated a long pursuit through the west metro after a suspect wanted in multiple shootings exited a freeway and attempted to make his getaway on city streets. Englin and Olson flew overhead and tracked the suspect to the Fourth Street Saloon on W. Broadway Avenue in north Minneapolis, where officers were able to make an arrest. The 19-year-old suspect was wanted on warrants and faces felony charges related to a shooting that occurred last November in Minneapolis.

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The Flight Division, with a budget of $2.41 million, has been around since 1957. The original two Piper Super Cub airplanes were used primarily for spotting unreported crashes, stalls and other traffic obstructions and hazards, as well as speed enforcement. The State Patrol bought its first helicopter in 1970.

With the recent rise in risky driving behavior and traffic deaths — and police chiefs and sheriffs' associations asking how the patrol might better support local — the State Patrol is turning to the Flight Division more often. And its pilots, who typically fly about 10 hours a week, are being dispatched frequently to help other agencies.

During HEAT, the patrol's helicopter helped the Robbinsdale and South St. Paul police departments and deputies with sheriff's offices in Washington and Chisago counties track down suspects. The patrol is talking with police chiefs and county sheriffs about increasing flight hours through the summer, said Col. Matt Langer of the State Patrol.

A bill introduced last week at the State Capitol would appropriate $2.5 million from the state's general fund to the Public Safety commissioner to let the Ramsey County sheriff partner with other agencies to use the flight patrol to combat violent crime in the metro area, where murder, assaults and carjackings have risen since July 2020.

Troopers on metro freeways during HEAT broke off several pursuits when they got dangerous and left it to Englin and Olson to follow the suspects. The helicopters are equipped with radios and thermal imaging cameras with street overlays to track vehicles and suspects, allowing the pilots to call out their locations.

"We can hover over them and stay right next to the vehicles," said Olson, a State Patrol pilot since 2014. "When they don't feel they are actively being pursued, they don't run as hard and fast. That is when we get them, and it's game over and they go to jail."

Police pursuits have long been a controversial topic, especially given some high-profile cases in recent years. In 2018, state troopers pursued a speeder off a freeway into a north Minneapolis neighborhood through nearly two dozen stop signs before the driver veered onto a playground and hit three children.

A Minneapolis police officer was charged last fall with second-degree manslaughter and criminal vehicular homicide in the death of Leneal Frazier. Officer Brian Cummings was pursuing a carjacker when he ran a red light at N. Lyndale and 41st avenues and hit Frazier's vehicle, pushing it into a minivan and a bus shelter.

When tracking suspects by air, officers on the ground can shut down a pursuit and that make things safer, Englin said.

"There is a large responsibility during a pursuit. It's one of the … most dangerous things we do," he said. "We have a responsibility to keep officers and civilians in the area safe, also to keep suspects safe. But we also have to put bad people in jail."

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