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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County Sheriff’s Office could get new $3.3 million helicopter to replace 50-year-old aircraft

A Sheriff's Office helicopter circles repeatedly as protesters and police clash in downtown Spokane during riots after the George Floyd protest on May 31, 2020.   (Libby Kamrowski/Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office could be getting a new $3.3 million helicopter.

The Spokane County Commission on Tuesday unanimously voted to accept a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice that will go toward the Sheriff’s Office’s helicopter modernization project. Accepting the grant doesn’t officially mean the county will buy a new chopper, but it makes the proposition highly likely.

The Sheriff’s Office and Spokane Valley Police Department – which is part of the Sheriff’s Office – have used helicopters for nearly 20 years. Today, the county and Valley have four: two formerly used by the U.S. military and two formerly used by the U.S. Department of State.

Spokane Valley Police Chief Dave Ellis told the county commission that helicopters are incredibly valuable for law enforcement.

The Sheriff’s Office uses helicopters to find missing persons, such as lost kids, adults with dementia and confused hikers. County and Valley police officers have used helicopters when fighting fires, transporting SWAT teams and surveilling suspects.

Undersheriff Kevin Richey told commissioners that the helicopter fleet “has saved lives.”

In the past two years, the Sheriff’s Office and Spokane Valley Police Department have increasingly used helicopters to pursue suspected criminals.

Ellis explained that recent vehicle pursuit laws enacted by the Washington Legislature have significantly limited law enforcement’s ability to chase suspects. The Legislature this year undid some of the state’s pursuit restrictions, but Ellis said police officers still can’t go after suspected vehicle thieves and burglars.

Criminals know that police officers aren’t allowed to chase them anymore, Ellis said. The Valley police chief said some car thieves even taunt officers.

“It’s very flagrant,” Ellis said. “We’ve got a large group that’s stealing an excessive amount of vehicles over and over.”

While state law prevents police officers from chasing burglars and car thieves from the ground, it doesn’t prevent them from pursuing suspects from the air. Because of that, the Sheriff’s Office has been doing more helicopter pursuits.

“As the law changes, it forces us to make adjustments,” Spokane County Commissioner Al French said during a Tuesday meeting.

Helicopter flights are expensive and an imperfect replacement for on-the-ground pursuits, Ellis said. But they also come with some advantages. Most notably, they’re safer and reduce the county’s legal liability.

Ellis said the Sheriff’s Office and Spokane Valley Police Department need a new helicopter because their current aircraft are exceptionally old. All four helicopters were built around 1970, and while they work well, safety concerns increase as they age.

Richey and Ellis said the Sheriff’s Office plans to buy a Bell 505 for $3.3 million, with the county and Valley splitting the cost. It takes about 18 months to build a new helicopter, Ellis said, so the new one probably wouldn’t arrive in Spokane County until 2025.

If the county commissioners approve the purchase of a new chopper, the Sheriff’s Office would sell one for about $900,000. The agency would put another one into reserve, too, and potentially cannibalize it for parts. In effect, the Sheriff’s Office and Spokane Valley Police Department would downsize to three helicopters and primarily use two – one for law enforcement and one for search and rescue missions.

Commissioner Chris Jordan said Tuesday he thinks acquiring a new helicopter is a wise move.

Jordan noted that the Sheriff’s Office and Valley police department in 2022 used its helicopters 184 times and those flights contributed to 45 arrests.

French said he believes getting a new helicopter is essential for public safety.

“If not this, then what?” he asked.