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OC police helicopter program may get cut

February 8, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
The police helicopter program run by the Costa Mesa and Newport Beach police departments is in danger of getting cut because of budget concerns.

The pursuit of the white Ford Bronco involving OJ Simpson, seen by millions in 1994, is the vehicle first spotted and tracked by a police helicopter in Orange County.

They are part of a team that would become known as ABLE, or the Airborne Law Enforcement Program. ABLE is responsible for tracking down suspects, finding missing people and helping police on the ground battle crime.

"When we're airborne we're first on scene to over 80 percent of our calls," said Airborne Law Enforcement Commander Tim Starn.

ABLE includes three helicopters, manned by several pilots from Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Santa Ana police departments. It started in 1996 to save money, but the crime fighting tool may soon be grounded.

"We're hoping we can save it last minute," Starn. "But as of right now the city is in real financial dire straits."

Costa Mesa has already laid off more than 100 employees and faces a $1.4 million budget shortfall this year. To save money, two council members are asking Costa Mesa to get out of the program.

"It's under consideration for termination," said Costa Mesa Assistant City Manager Thomas Hatch.

The helicopter program has already suffered cuts this year. Pilots flying 1500 hours have been cut in half from last year. City officials say the program is costing Costa Mesa alone more than $1 million this year.

"ABLE does a fantastic job," said Hatch. "But there's not always a need for that level of support."

Hatch stresses that most cities don't have a helicopter program. Others worry the loss of the air unit could hurt the community.

"For pursuits it's critical," said Starn. "Pursuits are really dangerous. We can see the whole scene and call the pursuit from a command perspective."

The city council is studying the program tonight. A decision could be made as early as next week.