The HPD Helicopter Patrol, known as FOX units could arrive on the scene in a matter of minutes. But operations are being drastically reduced from about 20-plus hours in the air to about 3 total hours each day.
Houston City Councilmember Brad Bradford spent 24 years with HPD, including seven years as police chief. He says no city department is immune from budget constraints:
"That is correct and to say that we have to tighten our belt in the city of Houston that is the proper thing to do. But we should not be reducing safety services, to the extent that grounding HPD helicopters will bring about."
The cutbacks mean that a dozen helicopters — worth a million dollars apiece — will sit idle in the HPD hangar at Hobby Airport. Bradford says routine patrols that have been a department standard for years are out.
"I know the value of having a tool like having police helicopters are in the sky. It enhances officers' safety and citizens on the ground as well."
Retired Houston Police Officer and councilmember Ed Gonzalez agrees with Bradford:
"I know first hand how critical these helicopters and their pilots can be in assisting ground troops. They can help sometimes with car chases. It's a lot easier or more safe for a helicopter to be able to gain control of that chase, for example, by being the eyes that hover above, or sometimes if they're pursuing a suspect on foot as well."
He says a city as big as Houston cannot exist without police presence in the air.
"If we want to put a high value on that in terms of public safety, which already expends a high percentage of our general fund, then I think we also need to be pro-active as councilmembers, and see if we can help identify area that we do want to cut."
The changes mean that HPD choppers will only be sent on:
- "Assist the officer" calls — the highest priority call when an officer is in trouble.
- When a child is missing
- To assist in an "Active manhunt" when a perimeter has been established by ground units
- During a vehicle chase.
Like Bradford and Gonzalez, Councilmember James Rodriguez calls the situation a priority:
"I'm trying to contact Police Chief McClelland to set up a meeting, to see what we can do. I believe our public safety chairwoman, Councilmember Noriega will probably be bringing this to committee as well, so we can flush this out and study it a little bit more closely."
He agrees with Councilmember Bradford who said resources must be found to return the HPD Fox Unit to the air.