Law enforcement aviation units have had to adapt to significant challenges over the last few years amid political turmoil, a pandemic and anti-police sentiment.
As a result, airborne units are struggling with labor shortages and inexperienced pilots, all while their demand in the field is increasing.
Bryan Smith, a safety program manager with the Airborne Public Safety Association, said that agencies are short on qualified pilots, mechanics and tactical flight officers (TFOs) after a tough year for law enforcement.
“What we do is not a common skill set,” Smith told Vertical Magazine. “Firefighting, search and rescue, law enforcement skills and experience are not things you learn in standard commercial pilot training. You must attract and train people and then retain them, which is becoming a real struggle.”
Smith cited anti-police sentiment as a reason for many departures.
“No one does this for the money. They do it out of a passion to serve the community and protect people. When they’re no longer appreciated, or worse, harassed at work and home, they don’t want to be a part of it,” he explained.
Smith also said pandemic-related stress was to blame for the dwindling workforce.
“[Also], the stress of a high extra workload during COVID — where people worried about other important things in addition to their jobs, like their health, their families, their kids at home when schools closed — has led to a lot of people leaving,” he said.
Another obstacle departments face when it comes to recruiting is the lack of experience among recent graduates.
Qualified graduates from A&P schools often lack helicopter-specific training, which is not required to obtain a technician license. Smith said the extra training, on top of increased missions, puts added stress on in-house mechanics and ultimately impacts retention.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety (AZDPS) has been hit particularly hard by staffing shortages, especially when it comes to aviation positions.
“It’s hard to get staffing throughout the DPS, especially in aviation,” AZDPS Chief Pilot Hunter French said. “We’ve really had issues with staffing. Of course, funding is always an issue for that, too. Overall, we’re having trouble finding people, hiring them onboard and having them fit in the budget.”
The AZDPS supports agencies across the state with search and rescue (SAR) missions, medical evacuations and law enforcement support.
The agency, which operates four Bell 407 helicopters and a Bell 429, is the only one authorized to conduct nighttime SAR missions in the Grand Canyon.
Its Tucson unit also assists U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) in patrolling the border from the skies.
The agency hopes to eventually shift to only Bell 429s, which offer better SAR and hoisting capabilities, but is hampered by slowing recruitment.
The AZDPS historically only hired pilots who were also sworn officers or paramedics. However, to attract a larger pool of qualified candidates, the agency eventually moved to hire civilian pilots while offering an option to attend the academy.
Due to budget concerns, the agency no longer offers that option. They are even considering hiring civilian paramedics to compensate for staff vacancies.
“There are certain costs to sending people through the academy and other sworn-officer employment expenses,” French said. “Hiring civilians and providing internal training on the operation and aircraft has relieved some pressure on staffing and budgets. But we’re still struggling to maintain [a full staff].”
The Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in Florida has also been forced to adapt to the changing environment.
Although the department’s aviation unit, which flies two Airbus H125 helicopters for SAR, fire suppression and public safety, is currently fully staffed, officials are concerned about the drop off in deputies and police officers applying for part-time TFO positions.
“The number of people wanting to get into government and police work has decreased, and we’re faced with a challenge in today’s current climate to get people interested in this line of work,” Seminole County Chief Pilot Lieutenant Steve Farris said.
Farris plans to maintain a steady pipeline of TFOs out of those transitioning to flight training from patrol. Farris also said the department has had to eliminate policies against beards and tattoos to widen applicant pools.
Departments are also considering embracing new aerial technologies to avoid relying on human pilots.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – or drones – are becoming increasingly popular alternatives to helicopters.
The Michigan State Police adopted unmanned aerial systems (UAS) equipped with high-definition cameras in 2014. The FAA approved its use in the state a year later.
“We found adding UAS to our aerial assets to be a nice marriage because we could bring the experience of airborne law enforcement and add a new tool to the mix,” said Lieutenant Pat Lawrence, a pilot with the MSP aviation division.