STOCKTON — Stockton police are in the final stages of acquiring their first-ever helicopter for what will be the department’s Air Support program.
The Stockton City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a bid from Hangar One Avionics for the purchase of a Bell 505 helicopter for $2,767,415. The council’s motion also authorized the department to acquire equipment needed on the helicopter — a high-powered camera with infrared capabilities, spotlights, a radio and a public-address system are among the items on the list.
Chief Eric Jones said the order was completed Wednesday, but outfitting the helicopter will take several months. The department also needs to revise its policy and update training before its launch.
The hope is to have the program “lift off” by spring, he added.
Police said the aircraft will be used for patrol support and aid in incidents like block searches, vehicle chases, locating wanted people and missing persons, as well as helping during natural disasters. The purchase of the helicopter comes 10 months after the department launched its Unmanned Aerial Support (drone) program.
The Stockton Police Department has been advocating for a helicopter for several years. At the moment, Stockton police can request air support help from the California Highway Patrol, which keeps a helicopter in Auburn, east of Sacramento, or from another outside agency, but its arrival takes time, according to the department.
In June, Gov. Jerry Brown awarded the Stockton Police Department a $3 million grant for the helicopter.
According to a staff report presented to the City Council, the air support program, if operated at the preferred level of use (850 flight hours a year or about 16 hours per week), would cost about $1.7 million for the fiscal year 2019-2020, just over $1.32 million the following year, $1.37 million for 2021-2022 and about $1.42 million by the 2022-2023 fiscal year.
A portion of the Air Support program’s estimated annual costs are for staffing, which is already part of the existing Police Department budget. The rest is yet to be determined, according to the city.
The other totals presented are hypothetical, said City Manager Kurt Wilson.
Wilson explained those estimates aren’t fixed. There are fixed costs — hangar space and insurance — that can be determined, but there are also variable costs, like how often the helicopter flies. The budget for the Air Support program won’t be decided by the preferred level of usage mentioned in the report but by how much money is available in the city’s budget, he added.
Funding for the Air Support program will be decided on a yearly basis, Wilson said. The city will evaluate how much money is available and work within that budget. The helicopter won’t be able to fly every day; it’s going to depend on whatever the financial constraints are, he added.
It is clear that with the model adopted for the program, the city can’t make a commitment on a fixed number of hours of usage for the helicopter, Wilson said.
“We’re going to stick with what we can afford,” he said.
Jones and Wilson said there also will be opportunities to pursue grants and outside funding for the program.
The Air Support program is “going to serve the citizens very well,” Wilson said.
The city has been reluctant to approve certain expenses due to long-term costs. Earlier this year, the city turned down a donation of hundreds of trees, citing concerns over funding for maintenance, and in 2016, only after community members rallied, did the council vote 5-2 to reopen the Fair Oaks Library.
Wilson said in this instance staffing is already taken care of. The Stockton Police Department will not hire people for the program. Labor is the factor that tells the city whether it can afford something, he said.
Officer Dan Lowry, a more than 20 year veteran with the Stockton Police Department, was recently named chief pilot of the Air Support program.
Lowry has spent nearly two decades as a motorcycle officer and on the SWAT team, he said in a video. He is a Marine Corps veteran who served in the Gulf War. He went on to apply to the Stockton Police Department and later joined the Army National Guard, eventually completing flight school and being deployed to Iraq as a pilot.
The department is fortunate to have Lowry on staff and taking on this role, said Jones, who trained Lowry when he first joined the department. He’s already an accomplished pilot with the skill sets needed and he knows the city well.
The department will train additional officers for the program. There will be tactical flight officers (or spotters) to work the cameras and radio communication and an assistant pilot, Jones said. Stockton police will use existing staff for those positions.
When asked whether he was worried whether Stockton could afford to maintain the program in the long run, Jones said there’s always a concern to ensure the department is funded for the hours it needs for patrol support. The helicopter will provide better police services in the city and therefore create a safer community, he said.
Said Jones: “I feel that the amount needed for the operation costs will be well worth it.”
Contact reporter Almendra Carpizo at (209) 546-8264 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @AlmendraCarpizo.