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Columbus Dept. of Public Safety requests new helicopter following upcoming sale

Columbus Police Helicopter
Columbus Police Helicopter

Columbus City Council voted to approve a broker to help sell a $3.4 million helicopter Tuesday.

Updated, April 25, 2023, 9:06 AM ET

Columbus City Council voted Monday to hire broker Air Flite to sell one of the city's five police helicopters. But the city's Department of Public Safety says it plans to replace it in the near future.

Deputy Director of the Department of Public Safety George Speaks said the city hopes to sell the Bell 407GXi helicopter it bought in 2019 for $3.4 million for more than the original price tag. Speaks said about $2.2 million from the sale will be used for equipment upgrades to the remaining four helicopters.

Speaks said the department will request a new helicopter that is the same brand as the other four from the city's budget office in the future. The leftover money from this sale could be used for the new purchase.

"That is secondary. Our primary goal right now is to sell the helicopter. We will use those proceeds to update our mission equipment," Speaks said.

The upgrades to the four MD-brand helicopters include new computer systems, searchlights, a high definition video system with night-seeing ability and new navigation systems.

The sale comes after calls around the country for police departments to demilitarize and pass reforms. The helicopters came under scrutiny in 2021 when flight paths tracked online showed one helicopter writing "CPD" over the city.

Aramis Sundiata, the executive director of the Ohio People's Justice Project, said the city selling a helicopter only to replace it with a new one, rather than reduce its fleet to four, isn't surprising to him.

"Those type of things, although on the surface, it may sound like a win for the people, it is actually a coercive tactic to pacify the people," Sundiata said.

Sundiata said he remembers when the helicopters spelled out "CPD" with their flight path and said it follows what he says are police acting with impunity towards citizens.

"That really happened and it was wild, and that's the thing. It's as if they can stick their so-called middle finger up at us," he said.

Speaks said having five helicopters helps with maintenance and spreads out the amount of time the helicopters are used over one of the largest urban areas in the United States. He said the helicopters are often used to track down stolen cars, other misdemeanor and felony crimes and help find an average of 20 missing and endangered adults and children a year.

"(The upgrades) will allow our four remaining MD helicopters to fly at a higher altitude. We have heard from the community complaints regarding noise. By flying higher that will hopefully diminish those noise complaints," he said.

Speaks said he hopes the sale happens very soon after the council votes on the broker Monday. He said he is told that the market for helicopters is similar to that of used cars, due to the pandemic and purchase prices being higher.

"(Air Flite) has sold our used helicopters for over 20 years. They are very knowledgeable about our aviation section," Speaks said.

Speaks said there are already interested buyers, and some of the city's used helicopters have sold internationally in the past.

George Shillcock is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. He joined the WOSU newsroom in April 2023 following three years as a reporter in Iowa with the USA Today Network.