Fayette County

Fighting crime from 1,000 feet in the air

In March, after Christopher Tolliver was shot and killed in daylight in the parking lot at Lexington Green, a patrol officer drove behind the vehicle in which the alleged perpetrator, Toby Ray Lasure, had sped away from the scene.

As Lasure drove across town, trailed by the officer in the cruiser, a police helicopter hovered above, tracking his every move.

"He couldn't have got away," said Officer Don Evans, the pilot who coordinates Air One, Lexington's helicopter unit. "We were on him."

Evans said he and another officer were at the hangar at Blue Grass Airport when the call went out and were in the air within four minutes.

When Lasure finally parked his car at Ridge Behavioral Health System on Rio Dosa Drive, the helicopter didn't leave. It hovered overhead to help officers position their cruisers so that if Lasure tried to run again, he would have no opening through which to flee.

The situation offered "so much opportunity for other people to get hurt," said Evans, who is known to most Lexingtonians as Officer Don, providing daily television and radio traffic updates. "Those are the type of situations that you definitely want the helicopter for."

While most days aren't as eventful as that spring afternoon, the officers of the helicopter unit say it's just one example of how the helicopter helps keep police officers on the ground — and the public — safe.

In chases like the one that followed the Lexington Green shooting, the helicopter can track a suspect from overhead, allowing the officers in cruisers to slow down and back off, preventing a possible collision that could injure them or an innocent motorist.

"One police pursuit can cost someone their life and can cost us money," Evans said. "These people know that the police have to weigh public safety with trying to catch them. The helicopter stops that."

"It can save lives," said Officer Dennis Smith, a pilot.

But Lexington isn't Los Angeles, and the officers of the helicopter unit aren't always buzzing around chasing bad guys.

Often, they're hanging out at the hangar at Blue Grass Airport, where they perform maintenance on the helicopter while monitoring the police radio. And then there are hours of training requirements to fulfill, both in the air and on the ground.

There are also roll call meetings to attend with the officers on the streets. Even though they look at Lexington from 1,000 feet up, Evans says that helicopter unit officers have to stay abreast of the details about what's going on below.

So, one Saturday night in September, Evans and Sgt. Pat Murray started their shift with a debriefing about cases that might crop up while they were in the air.

Evans had already attended a rollcall meeting and brought back pages bearing grainy photos from a recent gas station holdup, information about a person of interest in a sexual assault case and a list of nine stolen vehicles the police were on the lookout for.

"There are sightings of a panther in the Hollow Creek area," Evans told Murray.

"Last year, Chicago PD had to kill a cougar in an alley," Murray replied.

One never knows what might turn up.

Eyes in the sky

For certain calls, an eye in the sky can be a vital tool for police work.

Missing persons cases, major fire scenes, drug busts and traffic backups are all good opportunities to fly.

"They're about the most flexible asset that you have," said Murray, a 32-year veteran of the police department who works as a tactical flight officer. "It's a tool in your tool box that when you need it, you need it."

The helicopter is active in the Project Lifesaver program, in which electronic bracelets are used to help track Alzheimer's patients and those with related disorders. And every time a child is reported missing in Lexington, the helicopter gets called out to help search.

"We can, in 30 minutes, search an area that 30 officers couldn't search in five hours," Evans said.

That same capability comes in handy in searching for robbery suspects or other criminals who have fled a scene on foot.

It's what the police call a "force multiplier," Evans said. One helicopter is the equivalent of seven cruisers.

In cases in which helicopter officers are helping direct officers on the ground, big numbers painted on the roofs of the cruisers help them identify who they're working with.

The helicopter also gets put to use for untangling traffic snarls after big public events like University of Kentucky football games. Officers in the helicopter can see bottlenecks and tell their colleagues on the ground when to change the traffic lights.

Sometimes, a helicopter officer helps the fire department find fires, if initial reports are simply of smoke visible in an area. And in big structure fires, the four-seat chopper can help the fire department see where to position firefighters and trucks.

When scores of cars and a nearby warehouse caught fire at a salvage yard on Cahill Drive in September, fire officials were able to hop aboard the helicopter for a better view of what they were dealing with.

Typically, the helicopter is "mission-oriented," Evans said, flying only when the situation warrants.

But during busy times like Friday and Saturday nights, and during events that draw a crowd, such as concerts at Rupp Arena or downtown celebrations, the helicopter provides "patrol support," flying around the area, providing an extra set of eyes in case of mischief.

After police began getting reports of thefts from vehicles around Commonwealth Stadium during football games, the helicopter began shining its spotlight on nearby areas.

"We had a significant drop in the number of vehicle break-ins," Evans said. "It's a deterrent."

Security at a cost

Air One is a military surplus helicopter donated to the city in 2006.

Money from the police department's asset forfeiture fund (money seized by the police because of its association with a crime) was used to get the helicopter ready for operation.

But maintaining Air One and keeping it fueled up doesn't come cheap.

The city spent $93,212 on the helicopter during the 2008 fiscal year, according to records obtained by the Herald-Leader under the Open Records Act.

During the 2009 fiscal year, the cost was $141,292. The majority of that was spent on replacing the chopper's main rotor blades, which cost $107,000.

"We operate as frugally as we can," Evans said.

It is not used for VIP transportation or other such trips, and Evans does his traffic reports in his own helicopter.

Each time the helicopter flies, it has on board a pilot and a tactical flight officer, who tracks calls, monitors what's happening on the ground and communicates with officers at the scene.

Two full-time and three part-time officers are assigned to the unit, which has someone on call 24-7. There's always a line of officers hoping for a spot to open up.

"It's the best job in law enforcement," Murray said.

Flight by night

During the day, the tactical flight officer has binoculars at hand to get a better view of what's going on below, but the helicopter can help police gather just as much information at night.

On a crisp Tuesday night in November, a homeowner on the 200 block of Lackawanna Road called the police because someone was going in and out of a vacant home with a flashlight.

Smith and Officer Steve White hovered over the street, which runs off Nicholasville Road. Below was blackness, broken by the lights of passing cars, streetlights and the occasional strand of Christmas lights.

But inside the four-seat chopper, the view on the flat computer screen in front of White, the tactical flight officer, and Smith, the pilot, was much better, thanks to the FLIR thermal imaging system. The officer on the ground was lit up in white, and he stood on a field of black grass, crisscrossed by gray streets and sidewalks.

When the gate to the back yard turned out to be locked, the officer radioed in to ask White and Smith to search it for him.

One Friday night in September, Evans said, the police received a call about a suicidal man, but they didn't know exactly where he was.

The helicopter spotted him easily, a white figure sitting alone atop the darkened bleachers behind Henry Clay High School. In that instance, Evans said, the helicopter may have saved a life.

"We can see all this stuff on the ground that the officers on the ground don't get to see," White said. "That's a view that nobody else gets."

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