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City to spend $3.5 million to refurbish police choppers; News 5 finds they rarely fly to fight crime

State brought in OSHP to help Cleveland this summer
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Posted at 6:10 PM, Oct 03, 2023

CLEVELAND — Cleveland has two police helicopters, but the News 5 Investigators have found they rarely fly to fight crime.

Back in April, we found choppers were grounded over a fuel bill dispute.

Now, city council is staring down millions to maintain the aircraft.

The Cleveland Police Aviation Unit is decades old.

Council Safety Chair Mike Polensek says it’s not what it used to be and wants choppers back flying over neighborhoods.

“They tell us they’re going to be refurbished and are going to be brought up to present-day standard, and we’re going to start seeing them flying to assist,” Polensek said.

City council just gave the city the go-ahead to spend $3.5 million to refurbish two choppers.

Council says that’s nearly $200,000 more than the original legislation from March 2022. 

“If we just see them flying around downtown for special events, there will be a problem. I can tell you that right now,” Polensek said.

News 5 Investigators asked the city about the choppers in April. They flew for the Guardian's home opener but not to help officers track suspects.

Back then, police impersonators were terrorizing drivers.

“It was good seeing you again. Good seeing you,” said Andrew Alexander, a victim of the police impersonators, to News 5 Investigator Tara Morgan this week.

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They stuck guns in his face and stole his gun, phones and his car. He said he doesn’t know if they’ve ever been caught.

“Stuff like that shouldn’t happen,” Alexander said.

Polensek has been pressing the city about needing the choppers for police chases. Officers have wanted them too.

We showed some examples from an April 2 chase.

"Any chopper resources? Probably not, but I'll go on their channel,” said a dispatcher.

Police were tailing a possible police impersonator.

"Radio, any luck with chopper? No chopper,” the dispatcher answered.

“We were told yesterday that one was flying. But we all ask our questions when and where because we never see it,” Polensek said.

News 5 Investigators obtained police flight records from June 3 to mid-September. 

Not all of the operations were noted.

There was only one KIA detail noted in July, but nearly a dozen special events including a street naming in August and photo passes at the air show last month.

“Speaks for itself that’s not crime prevention. One detail for the KIA Boyz stealing all these cars the rest they’re flying for special events downtown that’s not what the aviation unit was put together for,” Polensek siad.

Governor DeWine brought in OSHP’s chopper to help Cleveland with violent crime.

“They did such a great job in the city the arrests they made speak for themselves and we’ve been at a great disadvantage,” Polensek said.

Alexander got his car back about a month after the crime.

“It actually wasn’t damaged it was just out of gas that was alright you know,” Alexander said.

He is now also wondering how the city uses its resources to fight crime.

“If they’re spending the resource money to take beautiful shots of the city they can use that same money to catch common criminals,” Alexander said.

Cleveland Police’s Aviation Unit has been around since 1989.

We have reached out to the city administration, and as this report aired on News 5 at 6 p.m., the city's communications strategist sent a response that reads, in part:

Unfortunately, two days after the original legislation was passed the company – which is the only one who has the ability to upgrade our helicopters – filed for bankruptcy, which has been a main reason for the significant delay. Certain parts needed for upgrades have had limited availability due to supply chain issues that COVID brought on, which has also contributed to the delay.

The company that filed for bankruptcy, MD Helicopters, has since been acquired by a new operating company, MD Helicopters LLC. Because this is technically a different contractor, we had to reintroduce “new” legislation to council, which they approved last night. With the legislation receiving approval, the contract will be finalized and then upgrades can begin immediately.

Our Aviation Unit has remained operational while we worked through the obstacles presented by the company, including during VeloSano, a Browns game, and the entire weekend of the Air Show – to name several recent examples.

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