When the Long Beach City Council adopted across-the-board budget cuts last year, the Long Beach Police Department’s helicopter program was expected to be one of the most affected parts of the LBPD. However, one year later, the department has yet to implement a proposed civilian-pilot model that was supposed to save money.
Reductions to the police budget were part of a mandate from city management for all departments to make reductions in May 2020 as the city faced a $30 million funding deficit.
But the department has been using an alternate model for the past 11 months that has fewer sworn pilots flying police helicopters while the department continues to work through the logistics of hiring civilian pilots, said LBPD Commander Jeff Berkenkamp, who oversees the field support division, which includes the air-support units.
Despite still using sworn pilots, the department saw a costs savings of about $275,000 when two pilots retired. Nevertheless, that’s still over $600,000 short of the savings amount the budget called for, according to a memo sent from LBPD Chief Robert Luna to city management last month.
Berkenkamp said the department believes it can find qualified civilian pilots and could even seek out retired military or former police pilots to fill those roles. However, there are other obstacles like mandatory union negotiations and other hiring processes that need to be ironed out on the city’s end.
“If we wanted to do plug and play, using the current pilots would be the simpler easier way to go,” Berkenkamp said. “But I think both options are viable. It’s just a matter of weighing the estimated costs savings versus the learning curve.”
The department is evaluating a number of options for how the air-support unit could work in the future. Berkenkamp said the department would prefer the model they’re currently using but are also looking at a model that includes two civilian pilots and two tactical flight officers.
The tactical flight officer communicates with police radios on the ground and uses tools like gyroscopic binoculars, spotlights, cameras and thermal imagers to assist officers on the ground in searches. The department is currently using pilots to fill the tactical flight officer positions.
This option would cost about $2.2 million, or about $554,000 less than allocated in the department’s 2020 budget.
Berkenkamp said that the department expects the program to be a focus at the Aug. 10 City Council meeting where department leaders will present the proposed LBPD budget to the council.
“From what I’m hearing, this is going to be something that’s discussed at length,” Berkenkamp said.
Long Beach was able to balance its budget this year due to an infusion of federal and state money allocated to the city, but a city budget official said that while there is a proposed $16 million increase to the LBPD, it won’t translate to additional staffing.
Berkenkamp said that while the department would prefer to keep the sworn pilots on staff, it’s important that the air-support unit is ready to go if the department needs it. He acknowledged it’s one of the city’s most expensive assets but one he argued is critical for the department.
“It’s one of those things that you just don’t know when something’s going to happen and you need it and you need it to be available,” Berkenkamp said.