Sheriff using helicopter to help fight crime in Valencia County

........................................................................................................................................................................................

When you’re fighting crime, law enforcement has come to realize that any and every device available could help — especially if it can fly.

Valencia County Sheriff Louis Burkhard found that this tool, a helicopter, might just be what his deputies need in order to help jump start the department’s property crimes initiative in the county.

Clara Garcia-News-Bulletin photo: Valencia County Sheriff Louis Burkhard sits with pilot D.J. Christian in a helicopter used to help fight crime in the county.

With the help of D.J. Christian, owner of Vertical Limited Aviation and a pilot with the company’s HALO (Helicopter Airborne Law Enforcement Operation) project, the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office has an extra set of eyes up in the air to help fight crime.

“HALO is inter-agency cooperation at its best,” Christian said. “There’s several different agencies that are helping to pay for the program, which every single law enforcement agency can use, and together, everyone can afford.”

Christian said helicopters are a tool that most agencies need, but are unable to pay for because of the high cost.

“It’s a program that helps to eliminate crime by just being there,” he said. “It’s a crime-prevention tool.”

The HALO program started last April and has been able to help law enforcement in a variety of crime-fighting activities. VCSO has been utilizing the HALO program since November, with the help of grant money available from the state.

The sheriff’s office pays $7,200 a year for the HALO project, which ends up being about $20 per day, per agency, the sheriff said.

“It’s been instrumental helping us locate stolen vehicles, and just last week, we had a metal theft at a cell tower and through the cooperation and help of the air unit, we were able to locate the suspect and take him into custody,” Burkhard said. “There’s been a number of things that have been very beneficial for us and it gives us an extra set of eyes from the air that we wouldn’t be able to have otherwise.”

Covering nearly 1,100 square miles, deputies can’t be everywhere at once. Burkhard said the air support is “absolutely essential” in their efforts.

Christian said having a helicopter in the air is the equivalent to having 15 officers in their search capability, increasing the chances of apprehending a suspect.

Partnering up with local law enforcement agencies, such as New Mexico State Police, is another tool Burkhard sees as a benefit in reducing the amount of property crimes, such as metal thefts and auto burglaries, in the county. Sharing information with other agencies has helped bring down the amount of property crimes in the county.

New Mexico State Police Capt. Nic Aragon says the inter-agency cooperation is a step in the right direction, citing the decreased amount of manpower in all agencies across the state.

“Working together is just going to benefit officer safety and being able to share information and reduce crime,” Aragon said. “We’re here supporting Valencia County. It’s our area as well and having air support here is only going to be an asset.”

While NMSP has its own helicopter, Aragon said it’s utilized throughout the state, and with the HALO program in Valencia County, he’s confident it will help reduce crime.

“It’s also going to help when we’re out doing narcotics investigations or gathering information for search warrants,” the sheriff said. “The air support really helps in those areas, as well as officer safety. If we have a vehicle pursuit, we can back off and still keep and eye on it from the air.”

The Valencia County Sheriff’s Office is the second law enforcement agency in the state to utilize the helicopter provided by the HALO project. Torrance County Sheriff Heath White has been using the service since last year, saying it’s helped to reduce the crime in his 4,400 square miles jurisdiction.

“We’re all over the county and we usually have one deputy per call,” White said. “Back up is usually 45 minutes to an hour away. By utilizing this program, we’ve offered deputy safety, but what’s more, we’ve reduced our crime rate just by having the helicopter in our community, especially in our rural areas.”

White says just knowing the helicopter is in the air has deterred metal thefts and other crimes in Torrance County. Without official numbers, White said he has noticed a decrease in certain crimes compared to when they didn’t utilize the helicopter.

Not only has the HALO program helped decrease crime in Torrance County, it’s also aided in several search and rescue situations. Before, deputies would be on foot for hours either looking for a lost hiker or missing person, but with the help of the helicopter, they’ve been able to find them quickly.

“We had a 3-year-old little girl two months ago that was reported missing and we were able to locate her within 20 minutes,” he said.

Burkhard said his department has been using the helicopter on a regular basis, setting it up on regular patrols. When the helicopter is available, the sheriff said deputies can coordinate with the pilot through the dispatch center regarding any call they’re responding to.

Christian, who has been a deputy with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, an officer in Bosque Farms and Isleta and a fire investigator for the village of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, said he’s hoping to add more helicopters to his fleet to help law enforcement agencies across the state.


-- Email the author at cgarcia@news-bulletin.com.