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Government

Funding For Wichita Police Aerial Unit Reallocated To Pay For Body Cameras

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PATRICK T. FALLON BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES
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After Saturday, Dec. 31, all of the funding for the Wichita Police Department's Air Section will be reallocated to pay for body-worn cameras.

This past July, every patrol officer in the WPD was reportedly equipped with a body-worn camera, a milestone that came nearly seven months after the projected deadline. The implementation process was delayed by the late release of funds for a $250,000 matching grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The City of Wichita's 2017-18 approved budget includes seven new positions to support the body-worn camera program, which began in late 2015. The new positions will administer the program and handle the collection, storage, and dissemination of captured videos.  

To fund the body-worn camera program, however, the WPD is giving up its air division, which includes a helicopter and provides search and surveillance backup to officers on the ground, as well as traffic control and community events.

According to the budget, the WPD will have to explore "private funding to support its Airport Patrol operations," a part of the department that has existed since 1970. Options for private funding include looking for grant opportunities and seeking donations to the Wichita Police Foundation, the department's public charity.

In 2016, it cost more than $460,000 to fund the department's Air Section.

Wichita Police Capt. Dan East oversees the Air Section in his position as head of the Special Investigations Unit. He says the air patrol used to have two helicopters, two pilots, two officers to ride along as observers, and a mechanic. That was until 2003. In 2012 the Air Section became a part-time operation, with one pilot and one mechanic, because of budget cuts, East says.

And now, as 2016 comes to a close, funding for the program has been completely eliminated, a fact that Capt. East says he was fully aware of earlier in the year.

The budget outlines the possible use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, as an alternative to the helicopter. East says that because of the intense regulations surrounding drones, including their presence in restricted airspace, he's not sure if they're "the answer for the department or not."

He notes a federal law prohibiting drones to fly within five miles of an airport. In Wichita, that eliminates a lot of airspace.

East estimates it would cost between $300,000 and 350,000 to continue the air patrol program as it is today.

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Follow Abigail Beckman on Twitter @AbigailKMUW.

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