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Sheriff seeks county OK to accept donated helicopter

More than four years after Harris County Commissioners Court scrapped a request from Sheriff Adrian Garcia to use federal stimulus dollars to lease and staff a helicopter, the county’s top lawman finally could get his wish.

Garcia will ask Commissioners Court next week for permission to accept a Bell OH-58A helicopter from a U.S. Department of Defense surplus equipment program, and use money generated from the sale of seized assets to equip it with an infrared camera, air conditioning and a video recorder, as well as pay for the first year of operation.

Garcia says the department, which has owned helicopters in the past but now has just one small airplane, needs a chopper to police the fast-growing unincorporated areas of the county, the nation’s third most populous.

“We have 1.6 million people, we have major city-type crime that’s occurring in our unincorporated areas,” Garcia said. “Having that aviation advantage adds to our ability to effectively serve the citizens.”

Commissioners Court shot down his 2009 request for a helicopter, choosing instead to spend about $7.6 million in one-time stimulus funding on digitizing the medical records in the county jail and other smaller ticket items.

This time, however, at least three commissioners say they are willing to consider the idea, particularly if it does not cost the county any money from its general fund.

‘Perfect situation’

Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Morman, who supports the proposal, said paying for the helicopter entirely with revenue from seized assets would be “the perfect situation, where there is not any type of drain on the county’s general” fund.

Garcia said he is not sure the department will be able to pay for the helicopter with seized asset sales after the first year, and that it is something his office would evaluate during the first year of operation.

The department pulled in $2.6 million last year in asset sales. It will cost nearly half a million dollars to outfit the chopper, and about $250,000 a year to maintain it for 500 flight hours a year. Three deputies already are licensed to fly helicopters, and two more with commercial certifications are in training, a department sergeant said.

The sheriff’s department for years has used helicopters of other local law enforcement agencies, including the Houston Police Department’s Air Support Division, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

HPD, however, has cut its air support division budget by more than two-thirds, Garcia said, reducing flying hours from 21 to three hours a day; the DEA, due to sequestration, no longer offers air support to local law enforcement; and the lone helicopter DPS keeps in the sheriff’s hangar serves 30 different counties.

Harris County is not alone in Texas. Sheriff’s departments in the state’s most populous counties – Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis and El Paso – have no helicopters or any type of aircraft, according to their public information offices.

Copters are common

Across the country, however, sheriff’s departments in most of the largest counties own helicopters and have operated aviation units for decades.

The sheriff’s department in the nation’s most populous county, Los Angeles, owns 21 aircraft, mostly helicopters, and has owned aircraft for 80 years, according to a spokesman. In nearby Orange County, the nation’s sixth most populous county, the sheriff’s department boasts “one of the premier law enforcement airborne units in America” with four helicopters and one fixed-wing airplane.

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