Police helicopter faces budget chopping block

Two gunmen burst into the Bank of America on East Coast Highway in Corona del Mar on June 8 and robbed the bank before escaping in a getaway car.

The heist happened so fast that Newport Beach police couldn't get there in time to find the vehicle, which a witness described to officers as a small red sedan. Miles away, but not long afterward, a black Dodge Charger was spotted driving suspiciously through parking lots in Huntington Beach.

It was something an officer driving by in his squad car wouldn't have noticed passing by. But it wasn't an alert patrol cop who was watching the Charger. It was officers looking down from above aboard the Eagle police helicopter, who then notified Huntington Beach police about the suspicious driver.

When police tried to stop the Charger, it turned into a high-speed chase that ended with the arrests of the two alleged bank robbers and their driver in Long Beach.

With a 50% cut in the operating budget by both Newport Beach and Costa Mesa for the helicopter program, Airborne Law Enforcement (ABLE), there will also be a cut in its effectiveness, said Costa Mesa Sgt. Tim Starn.

Starn, who leads the independent program that contracts with Newport-Mesa police and Santa Ana, said stories like the June 8 robbery arrest will be few and far between now.

The helicopter is considered a "force multiplier" by police because of its range of vision, quick response time and multiple tools. The Eagle can get from Newport Coast to Santa Ana in five minutes, find stolen cars through a LoJack signal from the air and detect body heat if a suspect is hiding in a backyard to help coordinate police searches.

"There's going to be an impact; there's no question about it," Starn said. "I guarantee. Track the crime rate for the next year. I guarantee you it will increase."

Critics say that the ABLE program is too expensive to support while Costa Mesa and Newport Beach continue to trim budgets and try to avoid more layoffs and cuts to city services. The program costs more than $2 million, much of which goes to staffing, which is also being cut.

Newport Beach passed its budget with the ABLE funding intact from last year, but will likely adjust it in the coming weeks to match Costa Mesa's reductions, Starn said.

Instead of having a day patrol shift and night patrol shift, pilots will now only patrol once a day, he said. Officials will study crime trends in Newport-Mesa to determine when to patrol. The helicopter will only patrol about 1,500 hours this year — about half of last year's total.

Yet while both cities are reducing their funding, Santa Ana is increasing its funding, Starn said. Santa Ana has a contract for the Eagle to patrol its city part time and is not a full-fledged contributor to the association. But with the overall patrol pie getting smaller, it will get a bigger piece, Starn said.

The reductions also mean the program will not buy any replacement equipment this year and will be using its general fund to cover shortages. The program is about as lean as it can get, Starn said.

"We'll be half as effective, the way I look at this," Starn said. "If we ever get back to where it's gone, we'll never get it back. It's an expensive tool."

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