Police helicopter's future in doubt

DOUBTS are today being cast over Suffolk police helicopter's future despite the fact it answered more call-outs last year than ever before. Between April 2003 and March 2004, it responded to 1,633 incidents – more than four tasks a day – and assisted in 122 arrests, the recovery of £427,350 of stolen property and 22 missing people.

DOUBTS are today being cast over Suffolk police helicopter's future despite the fact it answered more call-outs last year than ever before.

Between April 2003 and March 2004, it responded to 1,633 incidents – more than four tasks a day – and assisted in 122 arrests, the recovery of £427,350 of stolen property and 22 missing people.

But as Suffolk Constabulary braces itself for a tough financial year with a Government settlement likely to leave a £6million shortfall in the police budget, concern has been raised about its future funding.

Chief Superintendent David McDonnell, head of operations at Suffolk police, said: "We are continuing to use the helicopter heavily and the range of jobs that it's assisting in is growing all the time.

"It's an expensive asset and we do keep it under review constantly. Because of the financial issues facing the force at the moment, where we have to make cuts of £6million, it's subject to more scrutiny than ever before.

"The options open to us are everything from not having one, to mothballing it to reducing flying time to doing nothing at all and all these options have to be considered.

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"No force that has ever had a helicopter has got rid of it. When faced with a financial crisis they have always cut other things as they see it as an asset."

The number of tasks carried out by the force helicopter during 2003-04 grew by 318 compared to the previous year, which stood at 1,315.

It also exceeded the amount of stolen property recovered in 2002-03 by more than £370,000 last year and located 17 stolen vehicles.

Since April this year, the facility has already carried out 731 tasks, made 50 arrests, recovered £240,200 of stolen property, five missing people and ten stolen vehicles, leaving its operators in no doubt about its value.

Ch Supt McDonnell said: "It's not all about the cash it costs, it's about the service that is delivered to the people of Suffolk.

"We have a significant rank of different jobs, from the command and control of incidents, to locating missing people.

"A lot of them we would not have found the person without the helicopter or certainly wouldn't have found them until much later.

"I think the significant point is it's virtually impossible to put a cash value on anyone of those jobs.

He added: "People are always asking the question how expensive the helicopter is and does it save money?

"We can make the conclusion if we went to search an area of heathland the helicopter can do it in such a short time, while officers take much longer on the ground and it will cost far more.

"But, for example, when we have a vehicle pursuit and the helicopter goes up and talks the traffic unit in and brings it to a safe end what's the value in having no casualties?

"It does save lives. I'm pleased with the work it has done this year. I think it's a very valuable asset."

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