More helicopters eyed as a tool for Chicago police, Cook County sheriff to fight carjackings

Chicago police officials say they ‘anticipate’ acquiring two helicopters and might use private donations to help pay for them. Sheriff Tom Dart hopes to get a helicopter, too.

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A Chicago police helicopter hovers outside Guaranteed Rate Field in October before Game 3 of the American League division series between the White Sox and Houston Astros.

A Chicago police helicopter hovers outside Guaranteed Rate Field in October before Game 3 of the American League division series between the White Sox and Houston Astros.

AP

Chicago police officials, facing a surge in carjackings in recent years, are hoping to acquire new helicopters, possibly with the help of donations, to help track stolen vehicles and conduct other types of aerial missions.

A police source said the city has earmarked about $12 million to buy two new helicopters, but no contracts have been signed.

“We anticipate, or hope, to replace our helicopters,” Eric Carter, the first deputy police superintendent, said in an interview.

Carter said “several philanthropists have stepped up and inquired what the needs were as well as the cost. It would be a phased transition if we are successful in acquiring the helicopters through philanthropists and donations — or government funds.”

He wouldn’t elaborate.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart also is considering getting a helicopter.

“The sheriff’s office has been working closely with the county to secure funding to purchase a helicopter,” a sheriff’s spokesman said. “We believe it to be an effective tool for increasing the odds of catching and prosecuting carjacking offenders while keeping county residents safer.”

The Chicago Police Department has two Bell helicopters, one built in 1994 and the other in 2006. The police department shares them with Dart’s office under a mutual-aid agreement.

The Chicago police, sheriff’s office, Illinois State Police and FBI are among the agencies in the police department’s carjacking task force. They use the police helicopters with support from helicopters owned by the Department of Homeland Security and the state police.

Though Carter spoke of replacing the Chicago Police Department’s helicopters, a former city official said the police department would be better off creating a fleet of at least four helicopters, including the two old ones.

The possible timetable for getting new police helicopters is unclear. One source said it could happen as early as the end of this year. Another said it would take at least a year and a half.

The need for more helicopters has been considered by all three police superintendents who’ve served under Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the sources said.

The city also is looking to hire another police helicopter pilot. The job requirements, posted in March, include being a Chicago police officer for at least 18 months, having a pilot’s license and undergoing a year of training as a police helicopter pilot.

According to the city inspector general’s website, the police helicopter unit now has eight staff members.

The city’s police helicopters are serviced at Gary/Chicago International Airport in northwest Indiana. In May 2020, the city signed a $4.7 million, five-year maintenance contract with Gary Jet Center Inc. The police department pays for the maintenance with money that officers seize in drug cases.

Chicago Police First Deputy Supt. Eric Carter at police headquarters last month.

First Deputy Supt. Eric Carter: “Several philanthropists have stepped up and inquired what the needs were as well as the cost. It would be a phased transition if we are successful in acquiring the helicopters through philanthropists and donations — or government funds.”

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

The number of carjackings rose sharply in 2020 and the crime continues to be a major problem in the Chicago area. As a result, the department’s helicopters have been frequently called into action to follow stolen vehicles until cops on the ground can make an arrest.

The officers who fly them are able to keep their eyes on a fleeing car when cops on the street aren’t available to follow or when they’ve been ordered to end a chase because it’s too dangerous.

“We have a remarkable success rate at stopping the vehicle, recovering the vehicle and then securing some sort of charge,” Brendan Deenihan, chief of detectives, said of the helicopters.

Attorney Andrew Stroth raises his hands during a press conference outside Stroger Hospital to announce a lawsuit against the city because of the May 18 police shooting of a 13-year-old boy.

Attorney Andrew Stroth raises his hands during a press conference outside Stroger Hospital to announce a lawsuit against the city because of the May 18 police shooting of a 13-year-old boy.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

“It gives us time to think of safer ways to apprehend and take a person into custody,” Carter said.

In a helicopter chase May 18, a pilot spent about 15 minutes tracking a stolen car until the occupants jumped out and ran. One of them, a 13-year-old, was shot by an officer on the ground.

The stolen Honda Accord had been used in a carjacking in Oak Park, officials said. Automatic license-plate reading equipment in Chicago alerted police to the car, and one of the helicopters began following it, officials said.

The Honda zigzagged through the West Side while the pilot radioed the location of the car to a police dispatcher who kept asking the pilot whether any police vehicles on the ground were available to follow the Honda, The answer was no.

The car stopped near a gas station at Cicero and Chicago avenues, and the pilot said, “You got two on foot running southbound on Cicero now,” according to a recording of the police radio chatter.

The 13-year-old boy “turned toward the officers” and was shot, police Supt. David Brown said. The teenager didn’t fire any shots and didn’t have a gun, according to the city’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability. Brown said investigators believe the boy was involved in the Oak Park carjacking.

The boy’s family has sued the city over the shooting, which left him seriously wounded in the back.

“Unfortunately, that one got a lot more attention on the end result,” Deenihan said of the May 18 pursuit. “But that’s how the system works. I think you can make a reasonable assumption here that [the suspects] knew the helicopter was above them —left, right, north, south, east, west. Eventually, they’re, like, ‘We got to get out of this car because this helicopter is not going away.’ ”

Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) at a 2021 city council meeting.

Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th): “Why we haven’t invested in purchasing multiple helicopters is puzzling. It’s a proven tool to combat the crimes that are decimating our city.”

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) has called on Lightfoot and Brown to get more police helicopters to combat carjackings in his Southwest Side neighborhood and the rest of the city. O’Shea said he’s spoken to representatives of Illinois Democratic Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth and to U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., about the possibility of securing federal money for one or more of them.

“Why we haven’t invested in purchasing multiple helicopters is puzzling,” O’Shea said. “It’s a proven tool to combat the crimes that are decimating our city.”

O’Shea said he’s been told the department’s helicopters are in “poor condition” and frequently out of service for maintenance.

The patch that Chicago police helicopter pilots wear on their flight suits.

The patch that Chicago police helicopter pilots wear on their flight suits.

Chicago Police Department

In addition to tracking stolen vehicles, Chicago Police Department’s two helicopters are used in search-and-rescue missions, evaluating the size of large crowds, watching over events like the Chicago Marathon and conducting “aerial reconnaissance of target locations.”

The Chicago Fire Department also has two Bell helicopters, which are used in rescues.

Other cities have bigger police helicopter fleets. The Los Angeles Police Department has 17 helicopters. The New York Police Department has seven. The Houston Police Department has 13 helicopters, including one that’s out of commission because of a “hard landing,” a spokeswoman said.

L.A. and New York have a police airplane, too.

Carter said it would be “ideal” for Chicago to have a much larger police helicopter fleet.

“It’s just a force-multiplier all the way around the Chicago metropolitan region,” he said.

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