The auditorium at police headquarters is a-buzz as deputants wait for a presentation to the police services board by Trevor Harness, retired police officer and president and CEO of Regional Air Support and Rescue (RASAR). Every seat is filled save that belonging to Mayor David Miller.
Many may have come simply for the novelty act Regional Air Support has taken it upon itself to fund a helicopter for Toronto police use (plus two more for the Halton/Peel region and one to be shared throughout southern Ontario) entirely through private donations.
Shades of True Blue? Even deeper shades, perhaps. Appropriately enough for a group touting privately funded surveillance, RASAR remains a mysterious entity. Though it became a charity in May 2003, neither its financial records nor names of its directors are publicly available. But we know from a sparse Revenue Canada document that its assets totalled $261 at the end of last year.
In response to a query in that same document, "Give detailed information so a reader can clearly understand what the charity actually did to fulfill its mandate," someone filled in: "We are still getting organized.' RASAR conducted no fundraising activity in 2004. Its website gives equally little insight, but it is an interesting study in cognitive dissonance. The text of the main page stresses that the helicopters are a part of community-building. Or perhaps community is a part of helicopter-building.
At any rate, RASAR is the last, best hope for the ill. "For those who have been personally touched by a tragedy, or know someone who has been, understanding the need for a helicopter is very clear. When a child goes missing or Alzheimer's patient wanders off, time is critical." Themes of wandering Alzheimer's patients recur in Harness's live presentation to the point that he should have just referred to them as WAPs to save time.
One also wonders at the contrast between the goals of RASAR's community development office and its Top Gun Challenge fundraiser event: "This exciting involves [sic] participants strapping on an F-18 fighter jet simulator and going supersonic.... The fight is on.... It's winner take all. And watch out for wandering Alzheimer's patients (WAPs) in MiGs!" All right, I added that last part.
The mixed message may be a sign of confidence in just how many problems can be solved by a single helicopter. RASAR seems to believe copters should be purchased just on principle. Harness's presentation opens with a tally: Canada has 1,822 commercial helicopters, 91 per cent of them in the somewhat arcane grouping of "military and news gathering," while only 4.5 per cent (82), he reported sadly, are involved in law enforcement.
Harness points out that following Calgary's adoption of a copter, break-and-enters decreased by 33 per cent. But during questions from the board, a nonplussed Hamlin Grange gets his correlation all up in Harness's causation. "B-and-E's went down 25 per cent in Toronto after the [2000-2001 helicopter] pilot project," he says with typical dry wit, "just for your education."
Calgary's police helicopter is also the first on scene at 50 per cent of police calls which may or may not be significant, considering there's only so much you can do from a couple hundred feet in the air. If it's just response speed we're after, a simple tactical missile strike could probably suffice.
While RASAR underlines the fact that the city auditor found helicopters respond twice as fast to priority calls, it neglects to mention that despite being in the air eight hours a day, six days a week for six months, the 2001 chopper in T.O.'s pilot project attended 789 priority calls: 0.6 per cent of the total. "It would... be overly optimistic to conclude that one helicopter... would have any sustainable impact on the level of crime," reads the audit. "In fact, the city of Toronto did not appear to experience any crime deterrent benefits by using a helicopter."
Toronto already has use of one through contracts with other municipalities, and the report did agree that choppers are time-savers in critical search-and-rescue missions. But its first recommendation was to explore less expensive options rather than purchase one of its own.
RASAR believes this is no longer an issue, since it would fund (and own) the project including privately hired and trained pilots through a projected annual pull of $10 million from individual citizens, including $4 million from corporate donations, the single largest category.
"We must never allow corporations or wealthy individuals to fund police services," submits Helen Armstrong of Stop the Choppers. "Allowing such donations sets up the possibility that our police could be beholden to private interests over ordinary citizens."
"If private individuals want to give money to cover the expenses of policing," says deputant Roy Merrens, "they should give that money to the board."
When asked, Harness provides the board with the names of seven directors, mostly retired emergency services brass, notably including former Toronto police chief William McCormack. Two of them live in Toronto. There are seven other seats set aside for corporate members. Harness cannot provide me with names of these, implying that their seats have not been filled. He says that RASAR is not yet prepared to disclose corporations it may or may not be in discussion with.
The group's written submission says fears that the privately run helicopter will be answerable to the corporate funders are misplaced. "Since RASAR, as the intermediary, is dealing with corporations in raising funds, rather than the individual police service raising funds... all of the police boards and the contributing corporations are insulated from criticism related to the possibility of compromise.' True, perhaps. But in a way, corporations being insulated from criticism is precisely what opponents fear.
Mayor Miller, pointedly arriving just as the item wrapped up, stated bluntly to reporters, "The helicopter is a distraction. What we need is more officers on the street."
It remains to be seen whether Chief Bill Blair, to whom the board deferred the matter for report, agrees. But having repeatedly expressed his support for community policing, he may be moved by the written submission of U of T criminology prof Mariana Valverde: "Helicopters are perceived on both sides as a quasi-military tool to occupy a hostile territory. In communities where there is already a lack of trust in police... introducing helicopters will not only not improve safety, but will exacerbate the already negative situation."
In other words: Just a distraction? We should be so lucky.