Police eye new air force

September 17, 1992|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

The Baltimore County Police Department used ingenuity guile and even deception to sprout wings during the 1980s.

But now its bargain-basement air force is worn out, and Chief Cornelius J. Behan wants to replace the aircraft -- at drug dealers' expense.

Chief Behan says he will ask the County Council on Monday for $51,000 to lease a new, faster helicopter with an option to buy, and $130,000 to buy a brand-new fixed-wing plane.

But during the worst budget crisis in recent memory, he isn't asking taxpayers to foot the bill. The money would come from the pockets of criminals -- mainly drug dealers -- whose assets have been seized in joint county-federal operations.

The police want to spend $336,000 in drug forfeiture funds.

Besides paying for the plane and helicopter, the funds would provide $41,000 to build a new hangar at Strawberry Point, and the rest would pay for rented vehicles, apartments, special phones and wiretap equipment to keep pressure on sophisticated drug rings.

The up-front appropriation would be something new for the department's aeronautical unit, which assembled its tiny fleet piece by piece.

Officer Roy Taylor spent $12,000 of his own money to buy and repair an old fixed-wing Cessna he donated to the county in 1983. And others found two surplus 1967 Army helicopters for the force in 1989.

Mechanics combined parts from both into one usable helicopter -- without mentioning it to then-County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen until the work was done.

If the new funds are approved, the 27-year-old, single-engine Cessna would be given back to Officer Taylor, one of the department's three pilots, if he wants it.

Maj. Ernest L. Crist says 80-octane leaded gasoline is no longer available for the current plane. And substitution of 100-octane fuel has resulted in major engine damage that would cost $25,000 to repair, though the plane still flies.

Another old fixed-wing plane seized by the county also would be sold, since its low-wing design blocks the pilot's view of the ground, rendering it unsuitable for surveillance.

The fixed-wing plane is sometimes used in police searches, and by other county departments, for photography or investigation of environmental damage.

Major Crist says the 1965 plane played a vital role in May during a search for an assailant who invaded a home near Parkton and stabbed three elderly people, killing one. The pilot spotted a man fleeing from a stolen taxi that had been set afire, and he was arrested and charged in the slaying.

The helicopter took special heat-image pictures of the still smoldering Granite stump dump fire.

Major Crist says the new helicopter, which would be unmarked, also would be used for narcotics work in tracking drug dealers.

The new fixed-wing plane, equipped with four seats, also could be used to transport officers and prisoners around the state and to nearby communities in Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia, he says.

Major Crist is using the county's budget woes to help his cause. "Part of our narcotics plan is starting to fall into jeopardy. We don't want to decrease operations," he says.

The money for rental vehicles, for example, is needed because the federal Drug Enforcement Administration can no longer afford to provide cars to county officers involved in joint undercover operations.

The council is expected to approve the funds, although Vince Gardina, D-5th, says the new fixed-wing craft costs too much.

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