The loss of the state police aviation unit at the Williamsport Regional Airport deals a severe blow to the region's law enforcement capabilities, according to testimony Thursday during a state hearing at Pennsylvania College of Technology.
That point may have been driven home best by a pair of retired state police helicopter pilots who spoke before the Senate Law and Justice Committee and House Subcommittee on Crime and Corrections.
Former pilot Dennis Hoak called the shut-down of the unit and relocation of the helicopter to Hazleton the "the worst decision ever made."
Dennis Hoak, left, and Dave Frey, both retired state police helicopter pilots, show the committee how low elevation and terrain make Williamsport area crews more efficient when responding to state police aviation calls.
State Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Hazleton, asks
Daniel Barrett, Bradford County district attorney, a question about Bradford County
during Thursday’s Senate committee
hearing on the state police’s aviation unit.
Sheriff Mark Lusk informs the committee that he has seen an increase in protection from abuse orders due to the increase in population in the area with the gas industry. This has caused increased mileage on vehicles when the sheriff’s department has to go searching for people who don’t have permanent addresses in the area.
"We responded to many incidents on a normal routine patrol," he said.
The hearing gathered input regarding state police coverage in the region, but much of the testimony was about the loss of the aviation unit. Until this year state police operated a helicopter and fixed-wing airplane there to provide aerial support to federal and local law enforcement agencies and assist in non-emergency situations.
The aircraft provided search rescues, vehicle pursuits, criminal surveillance, crime and traffic scene photography, and transports.
Retired pilot Dave Frey noted that the helicopter was used for various law enforcement needs.
The aviation unit in Montoursville, he said, always was among the three busiest in the state.
By virtue of the facility's location, the helicopter was able to respond to incidents when those stationed elsewhere could not.
"We were able to use the terrain," he said. "We were able to get just about anywhere."
Frey questioned why the helicopter was moved to Hazleton, which is more than 1,600 feet above sea level.
That higher altitude presents a much more likely chance of grounding the aircraft due to low cloud cover than if it is stationed in Montoursville, an altitude of more than 1,000 feet lower.
Frey and others questioned why the decision was made to move the helicopter. They did not receive an answer.
"That's been our frustration throughout the process," said U.S. Rep. Garth Everett, R-Muncy.
Lycoming County Sheriff Mark Lusk called the aviation unit "an absolute critical need."
Lusk noted that having the helicopter on hand for routine assists has been lost.
He said it served the area in many ways, including in search and rescues and to help law enforcement disperse an area.
Williamsport Police Chief Greg Foresman said a helicopter is an asset in assisting law enforcement in searching large areas for missing persons and crime suspects.
"I can tell you it is not an easy task from the ground," he said.
Pennsylvania State Troopers Association President Joseph Kovel agreed an aviation unit is a critical need for the area.
With the Marcellus Shale gas industry booming in remote areas with little law enforcement presence, that need becomes greater. Kovel noted that gas drilling has brought an increased amount of crime for state police in the Mansfield and Towanda stations.
For Mansfield, the number of incidents increased 56 percent between 2009 and 2011. The number of incidents for Towanda rose 26.5 percent during that same period.
At the same time the complement of state police officers increased by just 10 for both stations.
Bradford County District Attorney Daniel J. Barrett said more state police are needed to respond to growing traffic and crime issues, much of it driven by the gas industry.
He said he does not oppose the growing numbers of people who now live in Bradford County.
"However, more people mean more problems," he said.
The criminal caseload, he said, grew by more than 40 percent between 2009 and 2011.
"We are, simply put, swamped," he said. "It has been a very difficult time."
Barrett said the criminal activity is spread throughout the county.