Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Heli You Say

So the city is buying a helicopter, whether we like it or not, and whether we can afford it or not. And we won't find out that second part until the new year, because nobody in charge of the city has any idea how long-term planning works -- but you probably already knew that, if you've visited our downtown any time this millennium.

And as you're probably also already aware, the city's second biggest news story of this week was the death of Zdzislaw Andrzejczak when he was hit by a stolen car and the subsequent arrest of repeat offender Mark Douglas Rogers. Although his mother insists it wasn't him, of course.

(As an unrelated side note, the biggest story this week -- the one that made international headlines from the most reputable news outlets to the most undesirable gossip sites -- was a surprise birth to a woman who didn't understand or realize that she was pregnant and delivered the baby into her toilet right when the police came to her house to arrest her on an outstanding theft warrant. In Winnipeg, even the miracles are surreal screwups.)

So during yesterday's city council meeting, Councillors Scott Fielding and Harry Lazarenko -- who might well both be perfectly bright individuals in person, but who both blurt out some pretty stupid things from time to time -- decided to put two and two together and came up with imaginary numbers. They attempted to justify this helicopter purchase -- not by releasing actual studies or data or anything, because the public still has yet to receive anything of the sort -- but by insisting, Fielding implicitly and Lazarenko explicitly, that Zdzislaw Andrzejczak died because we haven't put a helicopter in the sky yet. No, really.

This led the Free Press headline to pose the question this morning, "Could [the] helicopter have saved a life?" Well, the short answer is: no. And the longer answer is: no, you idiots.

The helicopter would not have saved the life of Zdzislaw Andrzejczak, and it wouldn't have saved the life of cab driver Antonio Lanzellotti last year either. (Police allege that Mark Douglas Rogers was directly involved in the deaths of both men, for those of you keeping score at home.) Stolen cars plowing into legally owned cars and killing people has become something of a yearly event around here, and the argument that a helicopter has any chance of preventing these deaths has more holes in it than Stephen Harper in a Liberal Photoshop contest image.

Let's consider the issue more thoroughly. All the discussion of stolen cars and sudden deaths this week has been accompanied by a lot of hand-wringing about the well entrenched criminal subculture in this town, and the idea that these teens -- children, really -- have no idea of consequences or respect for the sanctity of life. The sentiment and expression commonly thrown around is that these kids think of everything as being "like Grand Theft Auto", because it is fun to demonize video games. So let me tell you something; I've played Grand Theft Auto, for at least a decade now, and it was eight years ago in Grand Theft Auto III that the series added police helicopters.

This was at the time a new and exciting innovation, previously unavailable due to hardware limitations. (The whole game being in 3D for the first time didn't hurt, either.) In the game, the number of crimes you successfully commit -- stealing cars and killing people being the usual cited examples -- raise your "Wanted Level", or the effort the police are putting into capturing you. And when your Wanted Level hits three stars, which takes some effort, the situation has hit the point that the police send a helicopter out to follow you around.

Do you know what having a helicopter after you means? It means that you're a Big Swinging Dick, that's what that means. It means that you're somebody, and it means that you're impressive.

But here's the more germane point that I'm getting at: if you are fleeing the cops in a freshly stolen car, and the police helicopter begins pursuing your car, you do not slow down. You speed up. You barrel through traffic, knock over fire hydrants, dislodge streetposts, crush pedestrians, hit other vehicles, and do whatever it takes to try and get away. The longer you can draw out the situation, the better your chances of escaping, and the more impressive your story about it afterwards.

And if it turns out that police do take you down after all, what happens in the game? The screen fades to black and then you emerge seconds later from the closest police station, a little lighter in the pocket but otherwise no worse for wear, free to go out and steal or kill again at will. Heyyyyy, wait a minute -- I guess real life is like Grand Theft Auto!

Ha ha ha ha, it's funny because our justice system is fatally flawed and staggeringly useless. But we can talk about that another time.

If you genuinely believe in the idea that video games have trained these kids to steal cars and drive them recklessly, you are logically obligated to follow from there that the same video games have also taught them to become more reckless -- rather than less -- if a helicopter begins chasing their stolen car.

This is a conclusion you could have reached on your own without video games as an example, mind you. The introduction of helicopters to follow stolen cars didn't eliminate the high-speed car chase from society, but it sure as hell created an entire industry of television coverage about high-speed car chases. And when was the last time you read about a stolen car or a car chase where the driver hears the helicopter, realizes that the police will be able to track him more easily, and pulls over at a reasonable speed to the side of the road without incident? Has this ever happened? Or is this magical flying machine not as awe-inspiringly effective as we're being led to believe?

Is the helicopter going to prevent kids from stealing cars? Nope; hearing or seeing the helicopter will delay them by maybe a couple of minutes, but as soon as it's gone they're free to shoot the door open and merrily drive away. In fact, they can be more assured of pulling it off successfully, because a helicopter doing its perfunctory rounds is unlikely to come back to the area for a good while.

(Fun fact: carjackings are up 150% in the past year. Guess MPI immobilizers aren't fighting crime very well either.)

So if the helicopter won't dissuade criminals from stealing cars, will it hinder their reckless driving and aid police on the ground in stopping them? Nope. We've just noted that criminals can be expected to behave more erratically, not less, if they know a helicopter is following them. (If there are any studies to the contrary, City Hall is doing a very good job of not mentioning them.)

And what are the police cars going to do, race right on over to the area through the convenient freeway system that Winnipeg has never had? If the erratic driver is spotted in Old St. Vital, as an example, and the closest police car is along Osborne, they aren't going to get there in time to prevent a crash and "save a life" no matter how diligently that helicopter is working.

And who's to say that the police will even elect to go after this hypothetical erratic driver? You will note that several people contacted police that night, specifically to report the clear and present danger of the Hummer that later killed Andrzejczak, and the police elected not to pursue it. So, uh, whoops.

You can't really argue that as a police mistake, to be fair, because I'm sure they had good reasons not to pursue the vehicle. I'd imagine there are procedures in place to indicate that it isn't worth their time to track down every incident of reckless driving. But what are the criteria for police action, then? And are they going to revisit and revise them for the purchase of a single police vehicle?

"Central, this is Sky Patrol. Got a driver on Main going thirty clicks above the speed limit and weaving around through traffic with no turn signals."
"We live in Winnipeg, Sky Patrol. Let me know when you see something unusual."
"You... actually, you're right. Huh."

And now that I think about it, you can expect that the driving environment will be more dangerous in the event of an incident -- because other drivers looking up to try and see the helicopter, instead of looking at the road, is not going to help matters any. And before you decide that the suggestion sounds unreasonable, take a second or two and consider the kinds of drivers you tend to encounter any time you're behind the wheel. (Or crossing the street at a crosswalk, may the gods protect you.) Also consider: the province is currently in the process of banning the use of cellphones while driving, as we speak, precisely because people can't handle an extra layer of noise and concentration when they're driving. You know why? It causes accidents! It causes crashes. Drivers are distracted notoriously easily, and bad things tend to happen as a result.

So if the helicopter won't dissuade criminals from stealing cars, and it won't hinder their reckless driving, and it won't aid police on the ground in stopping them, will it help to apprehend the criminals by capturing their descriptions and tracking their movements? Nope! Even on the off chance that the driver isn't one of the one hundred and thirty known high-risk thieves, we have yet to be assured that our police are trained to distinguish fine details at long distances from continually moving airborne locations.

"Central, this is Sky Patrol. Suspect has crashed the vehicle and is making a getaway on foot through the West End. Suspect is male, aboriginal in appearance, wearing black clothing."
"Sky Patrol, that describes half the city. Could you provide more details?"
"Not really, Central. I just lost him under the trees, in fact. Did you... realize there were this many trees in the city when you bought the helicopter?"
"Hah! We didn't even check the costs before we bought it!"
"...oh. Well, wow."


"Central, this is Sky Patrol. Three suspects are fleeing the crash on foot, first suspect a teenaged male with short dyed red hair, five-foot-eight, white hoodie, second sus--"
"Red hair?"
"Yes, Central, red hair. Second--"
"Is one of the other two a fat bald kid? Red coat?"
"Yeah, that's--"
"Shit, we caught those guys last week. They're out again, huh?"
"Anyway, yeah, follow them, I guess. Let me know when they get home and we'll put the ankle bracelets back on them, maybe give their mom a talk again."
"Uh... roger."

Honestly, the only threat that a helicopter poses to the car thieves is that the damn thing will fall out of the sky and hit their car. But we're buying a helicopter anyway. For no good reason. Wait, is "other cities get to have a helicopter and our Mayor upsets easily" a good reason? Oh. Then, yeah, no good reason.

In an assumedly unrelated story, somebody may or may not have attempted to burn City Hall down with the entire Council in it today. This came as a surprise to everybody. You know how this could have been prevented, though? That's right: with a helicopter.

Winnipeg: One Great City, now with its priorities completely in order!


John Dobbin said...

It is getting a little disheartening to see so many decisions made in government with little data to back up the reasons.

Like you, I'm not convinced that a helicopter has more value than other alternatives.

It would be interesting to debate the overall strategy for local police. The truth is that we don't have enough information to really support one initiative over another.

C. Beresford Tipton said...

Our new government had a perfect chance to stop this looney idea right in its tracks, but chose not to by giving funding to it.
I think they probably chose not to, because to do so would give the barking mad rightwing types a reason to rear up on their hind legs and yell.

And we all know how much governments don't like people being mad at them.