Seedy sensors

Police helicopters are tricked out with all kinds of specialist technology that allows them to track down bad guys from the air. In fact, we write about the sensors and equipment that can be fitted to helicopters quite a bit for our Defence Helicopter and Rotorhub publications. We even have an up-to-date and comprehensive database of what’s available on the market for suppliers and customers.

Shameless plug over.

What we don’t generally write about is how these sensors and other technologies, generally designed to enhance the effectiveness of airborne police forces, can sometimes be a menace to the general public. Several events in recent years has seen long-range camera sensors or loudspeakers misused by helicopter crews, causing distress for those on terra firma.

Yesterday, it was reported that five men had appeared in court in Sheffield, accused of misusing the camera on South Yorkshire Police’s helicopter. They were arrested as part of an investigation looking into allegations that the force’s helicopter was being used to film people who were ‘naked or engaged in sex acts’.

G-CHSU Pod AJOsborne

Police helicopters are often fitted with powerful sensors that allow crews to see ground objects in high detail.

That case is ongoing so clearly a lot can’t be said on that, but it does remind me of several other instances of when a police helicopter’s on-board mission equipment has been used for purposes other than catching criminals.

Last year, the Twitter account of the National Police Air Service (NPAS) tweeted a photo of a well-known British comedian minding his own business on a London street. Several civil liberty groups as well as Twitter armchair commentators accused NPAS of abusing its surveillance powers by ‘spying’ on the, admittedly famous, member of the public.

Some may see it as a harmless fun, but that incident did raise questions about where and how police use their specialist equipment. The backlash created by it does indicate that we won’t be seeing anything similar in the future.

Another incident, again last year, that comes to mind is the case of a police helicopter crew flying inadvertently with the loudspeaker turned on. That would be all well and good for the residents of Winnipeg, where the incident took place, if the pilots kept their small talk to the latest episode of Game of Thrones, or the latest edition of Rotorhub (sorry, another shameless plug).

But no, instead the crew decided to talk graphically about oral sex and an ‘expletive-laden discussion about money’. Cue shocked residents tweeting the Winnipeg Police Service about how they were standing in their garden happily trimming their bush when the helicopter came over unloading profanities everywhere.

Those are the most recent examples that come to my mind, if you have more please use the comment section.

G-CHSU EC135 AJOsborne

As well as day and night cameras, police helicopters also feature loudspeakers and searchlights.

As a side note, it’s interesting that the more effective cameras or loudspeakers become, the more of a menace potential they have. Camera are now high-definition in both day and night conditions, and zoom capabilities are significant, meaning even if you don’t hear a police helicopter overhead there is a chance that it can still see you whatever time of day (as the comedian case shows).

Loudspeakers, as well, are more effective meaning you can be heard more clearly and further away. Even if what you’re saying is not particularly public friendly.

No doubt that the police forces involved in the above incidents have taken time to consider the effect of such incidents and how they lessen trust in the police. Obviously the sensors on-board police helicopters are vital when it comes to localising and catching criminals, but better training and workforce ethics needs to be instilled if similar incidents are to be avoided in the future.

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