Behind the Badge: Saskatoon police Air 1
CTV News is heading ‘Behind the Badge.’ This week, we’re taking an in-depth look into three specialized units of the Saskatoon Police Service.
Part one, which aired Tuesday, stepped into the world of the Saskatchewan Internet Child Exploitation Unit.
Part two, below, is a report from the skies with the police’s Air Support Unit.
It’s just before 4 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon. Sgt. Wade Bourassa and Const. Kristopher Kluz are arriving for their 12-hour shift.
The police officers don’t head to the police station to suit up. They don’t get in a squad car to begin their day. Instead, they head to Mitchinson Flight Centre, gear up and hop in an airplane.
“I would love to do (this job) forever, if I could,” Kluz says while waiting on the tarmac.
Bourassa and Kluz work together with the Saskatoon Police Service Air Support Unit, or Air 1.
The unit is made up of six members — four tactical flight officers and two pilots. Each night, one pilot and one tactical officer take to the sky. The tactical officers are tasked with controlling a special three-way camera and communicating with crews on the ground.
During our flight with Air 1, Bourassa is the pilot.
He circle checks the plane and gives us our safety demonstration as tactical flight officer Kluz puts on his helmet, glasses and sets up the cameras and computers before we take off.
“And we're airborne, 350 feet,” Bourassa says into his radio as he steers the plane upward.
“Copy,” air traffic control responds back.
Eyes in the sky
ASU officers patrol in the sky through peak crime periods — evenings and overnight — at 4,000 feet above sea level for six hours during their 12-hour shift. The team responds to a wide variety of calls — from graffiti offences to murder suspects on the run. They even assist the fire department, warning crews of signs a fire may spread.
“The role and impact the Air Support Unit has on the safety of the citizen, our officers and, in a lot of cases, even the suspects that we're tracking is profound,” Bourassa says.
He’s clearly proud of the unit.
Air 1 has an unmatched view of a crime unfolding. The team relays important information to officers on the ground, including which direction a stolen car is headed, where a suspect is hiding or if someone is armed.
ASU officers “not only make (patrol officers’) jobs a little bit easier and a little bit more efficient,” Kluz says. “Ultimately it’s about safety and coming to a conclusion to catch the bad guy at the end of the day.”
During our flight, Kluz controls the camera.
The video appears on screens visible to both officers in the plane. The camera uses infrared technology and can be used at night to detect energy and heat. For example, the energy of a speeding car lights up on the screen as does a suspect hiding in a backyard or a bush.
“We are a big compliment to the nose of the dog and the eyes of an officer,” says Bourassa.
The unit makes sense financially because it uses less police resources to attend a call, he adds.
According to the sergeant, 150 people who were arrested last year wouldn’t have been taken into custody without the ASU’s efforts.
The team also helped lay 500 charges, 300 of which involved gun offences, in 2015, he says. And in the last 18 months, Air 1 helped arrest 10 people wanted for murder.
Eyes on the ground
As day turns to night the calls start coming in.
“Central unit available for a 10-31? 1024 Avenue D delta north. A male just came to the complainant’s door, said he's been bear sprayed,” the dispatcher is heard over the radio.
“1024 Delta,” Bourassa responds.
In less than 10 seconds and from eight kilometres away, the ASU has eyes on the ground. During our one-hour flight with Air 1, the team assists with reports of a stolen vehicle driving erratically
and in looking for a woman who attempted self-harm.
“It’s imperative we find her,” Bourassa says, looking over while steering the plane in the direction of the call.
“So it’s not just catching bad guys. It’s keeping people safe that way.”
It’s that kind of work — keeping people safe — that’s getting the unit recognized.
This past summer the ASU received the Airborne Law Enforcement Association’s 2016 Fixed-Wing Operator of the Year award. The award was in part for the team’s work during a major hostage situation on Coppermine Crescent in 2014. The unit was integral in arresting a man after he fired nearly 50 rounds, some at police.
“Not too often in Saskatoon we have active shooters with multiple hostages involved,” says Kluz. “When you can see an outcome like that — a successful outcome with a very intense and stressful situation — it’s good to know that we were there to help.”
Bourassa says his goal is to have the ASU fighting crime in the sky 24 hours a day.
It’s important and rewarding work, he says. Plus the view each night isn't so bad either.