New police helicopters in Ontario to help combat car theft and find missing people

TORONTO – Four new police helicopters will help combat the car theft crisis and assist in the search for missing vulnerable people, provincial and Toronto-area police forces say.

All four police services – Toronto, Peel Regional, Halton Regional and Durham Regional – came together to call on the government to create more air support for the region. At the moment, two forces in the area have one helicopter each, which they share with other police forces depending on the needs and the moment.

The Ontario Provincial Police will purchase four helicopters at a cost of about $36 million and the province has set aside $10 million to operate them over the next three years, Attorney General Michael Kerzner said.

He said they have not yet decided whether the OPP will operate the helicopters on behalf of those four police forces or whether they will rent them to those police services.

The OPP called the rise in car thefts across the province in recent years “unprecedented,” driven by demand for high-end vehicles being shipped to Africa and Europe. Police said last week that nearly 3,000 cars were stolen in the province over the previous seven weeks.

Most vehicles stolen in Ontario are driven or transported to Montreal and leave the country through the port of Quebec City, the province said.

“As criminals become more sophisticated, so do we,” Kerzner said. “And this government has said that is enough. If we have helicopters, we will be able to find these criminals who are on the roads and respond.”

Details on how it will work in practice will come over time, Kerzner said, without committing to a date to have the new helicopters in the sky.

The purchase was described in the provincial budget released last week, but there were few details. The four helicopters will join the single helicopter in Durham, east of Toronto. Nearby York Regional Police also has its own helicopter, while the OPP already has a pair.

Durham Regional Police has had its helicopter, Air1, for 25 years.

Deputy Chief Chris Kirkpatrick said the police helicopter has saved lives for the past quarter century and can reach any location within its 2,500 square kilometer jurisdiction in a matter of minutes.

Air1, which can respond at any time of the day or night, received 860 calls for service last year, he said. On 147 of those calls, the police helicopter found people either evading police or vulnerable people missing.

The helicopter is equipped with thermal images that facilitate the search for people hidden or lost in unconventional areas.

The aerial unit is particularly good at finding vulnerable missing people, particularly elderly people who suffer from dementia and may wander away from home.

“When someone is missing like that, it all comes down to finding that person and this is an incredible asset to that,” Kirkpatrick said.

“This really helped find them quickly, get them to safety and get them back to their families.”

The eye in the sky also makes the work of ground officers safer, Kirkpatrick said.

“When we have air support, it’s that surveillance that can illuminate an area and can see things in ways that we can’t see on the ground,” he said. “It gives them a holistic picture of the scene and then they can radio it back to members on the ground.”

Toronto police, which have not had their own helicopter for decades, appreciate the government’s move.

“Access to helicopters will modernize frontline law enforcement response across jurisdictional boundaries in the GTA, making it easier to track and capture criminals involved in violent crimes such as home invasions and vehicle thefts,” Chief Myron Demkiw said in a statement.

“Air support will enhance police capabilities to respond to these often dynamic and dangerous events and will also assist police in carrying out searches for missing vulnerable people.”

But Ontario’s new Democratic leader, Marit Stiles, said the province has its priorities wrong and should instead invest in the overwhelmed justice system, plagued by delays and staff shortages.

“We’re trying to go after the car once it’s already been stolen, so I’d like us to prevent the car from being stolen in the first place,” he said.

With prisons well over capacity across Ontario, Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the money could be better spent elsewhere.

“80 per cent of the people in provincial jails are just awaiting trial, that’s how far behind the system is,” Schreiner said.

“And instead of investing to solve that problem, the government is buying helicopters. To me, it’s just a misplacement of their priorities.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 2, 2024.

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