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Columbus Police Defend Six-Helicopter Unit

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- With voters set to decide on an income tax increase that supporters say would save police and firefighter jobs, the Columbus Division of Police's Helicopter Unit commander made his case today for having six helicopters to patrol city skies.

Speaking at the police department's new $6.8 million heliport on West Broad Street, Lt. Michael Elkins said the helicopter unit's $3.4 million annual budget is needed to protect residents and police officers' lives.

"We're more responsive, we're faster, we provide information and we provide suspect location," Elkins said. "I think Columbus gets it. I don't want to go in another direction. I think the helicopter unit is
hugely important. I think the helicopter becomes more and more important if you have a reduction in personnel."

The city's six helicopters are more than the vast majority of major cities, with notable exceptions such as New York City, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Houston. Similar cities have far less helicopters, if any at all. Detroit, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh police do not own helicopters. Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Austin police own two helicopters.

Elkins defended Columbus' fleet as "ahead of the curve," saying he would argue the helicopter unit is more important than redirecting the money to put more officers on the street.

"If the city of Columbus told me to sell two helicopters I would try to make it work, but I think we're going to start missing flight time," Elkins said.

Residents differed in their opinion of which was more important: helicopter or ground support.

"I think they ought to find some other place to cut," said Georgia Speakman, a west side resident. "I know they're around here all the time, we see them all the time. So I still believe we need every one of them -- and if we cut back on that we're going to have more crime."

"I would prefer police on the ground. In the air, that's optional. We need more police that are going to be able to out walking, more in the communities," said Fran Simmons of Columbus' east side. "People trying to commit a crime can actually see them and know maybe it might deter them from trying to do something wrong."

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