Police helicopters are overused and dangerous: cases in point

Police helicopters are overused and dangerous: cases in point
Sunalta Station front entrance with concrete tile pad. I sat on the farthest of the three visible benches at the beginning of this incident.

A man is dead after being chased by the Edmonton Police Air-1 helicopter onto dangerous ice of the North Saskatchewan River.

In July 2022, a similarly over-the-top deployment was caught on film in Calgary's Sunalta neighbourhood.

Just two weeks after being directed to investigate, the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) concluded its investigation of the death of a man who was pursued by Edmonton Police until he fell through the ice on the North Saskatchewan River and drowned. The man's body remains missing.

The pursuit began after Edmonton Police attempted to stop the man for riding his bike “without proper lighting equipment” where Whyte Ave crosses Mill Creek Ravine. It quickly escalated to trigger the deployment of a search helicopter, which maintained visual on the man until the moment of his disappearance through the ice.

Air-1 helicopter photograph of the man running onto the ice of the North Saskatchewan River. From: Edmonton Journal.

This tragic incident highlights the carelessness with which force is deployed by police for the pursuit of people who pose little or no threat to the public.

On July 20, 2022 I witnessed firsthand a rough arrest by Calgary Police at Sunalta C-Train Station. I filmed much of it, but wasn’t quick enough to capture the initial arrest.

Two officers had stormed into the building, which had seen very little traffic over the half-hour I’d been sitting outside conducting outreach with unhoused individuals. Three people were sitting inside near the doorway—two men and a woman. One of the men was chased into the concrete pad outside, where he was tackled at full speed.

Personal footage, July 20, 2022.

On the ground, one officer (Officer 1) can be heard saying: “You’re under arrest for drugs. Were you smoking up the drugs?” The arrestee is yelling while Officer 1 says: “Relax.” Officer 1 then says “...Get over here… (something about smoking up the drugs and running away)... Stop it” (gesturing to a man filming from a bicycle). The arrestee refers to the drugs belonging to his brother, and Officer 1 replies “Nice.”

Walking the arrestee toward the rear of the building, Officer 2 tells him “A train station is not somewhere where you smoke crack.” The arrestee protests while being escorted toward the train station, and Officer 2 says “Now now, relax.”

Watching from the rear of the building, we next witnessed one of the two arrested men escape from custody in handcuffs.

Arrestee 2: “Fucking tired (?)… I’m not restraining… This is police brutality! I’m not restraining. I’m not restraining.” Arrestee 1 then runs away. Officer 1 states: “He got away."

The officer chasing him can be heard asking us if the arrestee went up the ramp. Following him to the front of the building, we could see he lost track of the arrestee.

I then walked back around to the rear of the building to follow up with the person still in custody there, but the police vehicle was gone.

At this point, a helicopter had been deployed to the location and increasing numbers of CPS vehicles were visible, including two more heavily militarized undercover vehicles (one is shown below, in white).

The helicopter remained in the air over Sunalta neighbourhood for at least an hour.

I photographed the contents of the person's backpack. Note that a can of bear mace was found in the backpack, which could be considered a weapon under local law. Otherwise, there was nothing that could pose a significant threat to public safety. A baggie with a tiny amount of unknown substance, possibly methamphetamine, was visible among the items.

Contents of the arrested person's backpack, showing in the top-right pile a baggie with unknown item, sunglasses, pen, peanuts, lighter, chain, pocketknife, hand sanitizer and a baggie with an unknown item. The backpack contains an item of clothing, pack of cigarettes and a can of bear mace.

I inquired about the reason for arrest with Calgary Police's Access to Information Division. This request was turned down, as I was not technically involved in the incident. However, on follow-up I managed to obtain enough information to understand the intensity of the deployment; having the audio of the arrest in which the officer clearly states "smoking crack in the train station" as the reason for arrest is as much as we are likely to know about that.

The eventual response from CPS on April 5, 2023 provided the following information:

“I am replying to your request for information pertaining to an incident from July 20, 2022, at the Sunalta C-Train Station. As per your telephone conversation with the Director of the Access & Privacy Section, your request was amended to “number and type of each police unit deployed to search for the suspect, w/ vehicle #s”, with regards to the incident on July 20, 2022 at the Sunalta C-train Sation. [sic]

I can advise that there were 12 units deployed, which included 8 patrol units, Hawc, one canine unit and 2 mountain bike units.

The unit numbers were as follows: 1212T, 1214, 1216, 1219, 1237, 1241, 1246, 1247, Hwc1, K932, MB22, and MB24.”
Multiple police pickup trucks were deployed to Sunalta neighbourhood in an apparent attempt to lock down the perimeter of the search.

I inquired with CPS about the costs to run the HAWCS program and the policies around deployment of the helicopters. In 2022, the program's operating cost was approximately $3 million.

Totals per month are between $225,000 and $309,000.
Cost per month in maintenance, fuel and wages to run the HAWCS helicopter program in 2022.

The FOIP response showing expenses and policies governing deployment of HAWCS is provided here in full. There was little of use in the deployment protocols except to clarify how the decision to deploy is made. This is conducted through the Real Time Operations Centre and is based on the following criteria:

  • likelihood of success of identifying criminal activity and/or suspects;
  • likelihood of success in locating a missing or vulnerable person;
  • supporting ground patrol; and
  • contributing to public safety.

It is unclear what threat to public safety was posed by the escaped man who smoked drugs in the train station, but with his hands cuffed behind his back, it could be suggested that Calgary Police had placed him in danger through incapacitation.

The extreme police responses elicited by these two events – a man riding his bike without appropriate lighting and a trio of people smoking drugs in an empty train station – exemplify the danger of providing police with the capacity to massively escalate in response to insignificant safety concerns.

Twelve vehicles, vicious dogs and a helicopter should not be use to chase a man for smoking illegal drugs.

A helicopter should not be used to chase a person for riding a bike without lights.

In one of these two cases, the outcome was a preventable and tragic fatality.

Drug Data Decoded provides analysis on topics concerning the war on drugs using news sources, publicly available data sets and freedom of information submissions, from which the author draws reasonable opinions. The author is not a journalist.

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