Law enforcement aviation contributes $300 million annually to industry

In 2007, 201 law enforcement aviation units operated nearly 900 aircraft in 46 states and the District of Columbia, according to a report released today by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.

These units, located in agencies with 100 or more sworn officers, employed 3,400 persons and reported expenditures in 2007 of more than $300 million to purchase, lease or finance and maintain and fuel their aircraft. The findings are from the 2007 Census of Law Enforcement Aviation Units, the first national study of police units operating planes or helicopters.

Approximately 20% of all law enforcement agencies with 100 or more sworn officers had aviation units, including 44 state police agencies, 76 sheriffs’ offices, 68 municipal police agencies and 13 county police agencies.

Aviation units were involved in both general, patrol-related operations and special operations, such as emergency rescue, counterterrorism and SWAT missions. In 2007, almost all (nine in 10) airborne law enforcement units responded to calls for service, assisted ground units in making arrests, and engaged in foot or vehicle pursuits. Nearly half of the aviation units (47%) performed street traffic-related functions, reporting on traffic patterns, accidents, and speed.

About 80% of the units performed counterterrorism missions, such as conducting critical facility checks on buildings, ports, public utilities, oil refineries, bridges, airports and monuments. Around 90% engaged in drug operations and performed other criminal activity surveillance. Nearly 80% conducted searches for lost or stranded hikers, boaters or skiers, and approximately 60% served a firefighting function in 2007.

During 2007, the 201 aviation units conducted an estimated 384,800 missions and logged approximately 363,000 total flight hours. State police units reported the largest number of flight hours (137,600); municipal police units flew the most missions (189,700).

About 24% of the units operated six or more aircraft, 60% operated between two and five aircraft, and 16% operated one aircraft. Of the almost 900 aircraft in use in 2007, more than twice the number of police helicopters (604) compared to planes (295) were in operation. In half of the aviation units (50%), a helicopter was the only form of aircraft flown, while just 12% of units flew planes only.

Nearly 70% of all aircraft had been purchased by the law enforcement agencies. Approximately 25% had been acquired through the Department of Defense’s government surplus program, which allows excess military equipment to be transferred to state and local law enforcement agencies. Aviation units in sheriffs’ offices had the highest percentage of aircraft obtained through the government surplus program (43%), followed by municipal police (21%), county police (20%), and state police aviation units (15%).

Nationwide, about half of the aircraft operated by these agencies were 20 years old or older, and 20% were five years old or less. Aviation units in sheriffs’ offices had the highest percentage of aircraft that were at least 20 years old or older (64%).

Of the 3,400 personnel assigned to the aviation units, three-quarters were sworn officers. More than half of the personnel were pilots, and a quarter were tactical flight officers.

Most aviation units had established safety measures, such as having a designated safety manual (89%), conducting safety meetings (90%), and purchasing private insurance (90%). Among the 201 aviation units, three aircraft accidents were reported for 2007, with 32 being reported between 2003 and 2006.

The report “Aviation Units in Large Law Enforcement Agencies, 2007 (NCJ 226672),” was written by BJS statistician Lynn Langton. It can be found at

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