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Modesto seeks its own crime fighter in the sky

Modesto Police Department proposing to buy plane

The Modesto Police Department wants to spend as much as $660,000 for the purchase a light sport aircraft equipped with cutting edge camera with night vision capabilities and a spotlight as its latest crime fighting tool. The department is interest
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The Modesto Police Department wants to spend as much as $660,000 for the purchase a light sport aircraft equipped with cutting edge camera with night vision capabilities and a spotlight as its latest crime fighting tool. The department is interest

The Modesto Police Department wants its own high-tech crime fighter in the sky.

Police Chief Galen Carroll is expected on Tuesday to ask the City Council to approve spending as much as $660,000 for what is called a light sport aircraft that seats two and is equipped with a spotlight and a high-definition camera with long-range scope and night vision that records what it sees.

Carroll said the aircraft would be flown by volunteer pilots and police officers who are pilots. He envisions the airplane being in the sky five to six hours a day, five days a week, patrolling the city, conducting traffic enforcement, and helping with crimes in progress and special operations.

“I see this as being a force multiplier,” Carroll said. The department’s staffing is at its lowest level in many years, with 219 officers allocated in the current budget year.

The proposed purchase comes after voters last week rejected a sales tax increase the city put on the ballot to pay primarily for more public safety after city officials said the city did not have the money to adequately protect Modesto. Measure G was expected to bring in $14 million annually to the city’s roughly $115 million general fund, which primarily pays for police and fire services.

“I know naysayers will say we are wasting money,” Carroll said. “But we are trying to protect the city with the limited resources we have. This is another way of being smart with the taxpayers’ money. We have been researching this for close to a year. … We did not live or die on Measure G. We still have a department to run and a city to protect.”

Modesto already has air support through the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff Adam Christianson said his department’s helicopter is in the air 25 to 30 hours a week, primarily Fridays through Sundays. He said the helicopter covers the county but spends the majority of its time in Modesto. He said his department does not charge Modesto.

The Sheriff’s Department and Police Department talked about expanding the helicopter’s coverage, but Modesto would have to pay for that. Carroll said those costs would be too high. Christianson said it costs $650 an hour to operate his department’s helicopter. Based on that, it would cost the Police Department $845,000 a year for 25 hours of coverage each week. A city report states it will cost about $75,000 a year to operate the aircraft.

Still, Christianson said it appeared Modesto was trying to provide a service his department already provides. “It does seem duplicative to me,” the sheriff said, though Carroll disagreed. “We want a regular air patrol that’s not provided now,” he said. “If we had that service, we would not be looking to duplicate a free service we already have.”

Carroll said his department is not competing with the Sheriff’s Department and said there will be times when his officers need the Sheriff’s Department helicopter. “I’m looking at this more as a patrol car that happens to fly,” he said.

The Police Department wants to purchase a Flight Design CTLEi aircraft from Airtime Aviation in Tulsa, Okla. The city did not seek bids because, according to a city report, Airtime is the only U.S. dealership that sells this type of aircraft equipped with the camera and computer system. Flight Design is based in Germany.

Carroll said the airplane flies at 1,000 feet (the Sheriff’s Department helicopter flies at 500 to 1,000 feet), can circle as slowly as a helicopter and is very quiet.

The report states that the city would pay for the aircraft and its high-tech gear with $194,000 in state asset forfeiture funds; $166,00 from its traffic safety fund; $100,000 in the Supplemental Law Enforcement Services Funds it receives from the state; and $200,000 from the general fund.

The city report states the sheriff’s departments in Kings and Tulare counties have purchased Flight Design CTLEi airplanes. As part of their due diligence, Modesto police met with the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department.

“Our aviation unit has been a great success, and we feel that the light sport aircraft is a safe and cost-effective platform for law enforcement aviation,” Tulare sheriff’s Lt. Rob Schimpf said in an email. “With the cost being a fraction of that associated with larger aircraft, such as helicopters, we are able to operate our plane in a proactive patrol capacity.”

Schimpf’s department recently purchased a second plane.

Carroll also met with Modesto’s Airport Advisory Committee, the members of which are pilots and/or from the aviation industry, for feedback. Councilman Bill Zoslocki, who serves on the committee and is a longtime pilot, said committee members liked what they heard.

The City Council will meet at 5:30 p.m. in the basement chambers of Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St.

Kevin Valine: 209-578-2316

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