Earlier this year the number of cases involving thieves stealing car keys from homes and fleeing in stolen vehicles doubled in just three months, and determined officers have vowed to launch a “relentless” fightback on city criminals.
Operation RAC – a drive to target housebreakers and car thieves – was resurrected in April, with more than 120 arrests and 408 charges secured since then.
Today Police Scotland insisted the force’s Air Support Unit had been vital in achieving those results.
The squad’s high-tech chopper – the only active police helicopter in Scotland – was based in the Capital all last week, sweeping the skies above the north of the city and providing much-needed support to officers on the ground.
And Chief Superintendent Mark Williams, Edinburgh’s Divisional Commander, said the aircraft had overseen a 90 per cent fall in the number of juvenile motorbike thefts reported to police over those five days.
He also insisted the chopper’s presence in the city demonstrated how seriously officers were taking Edinburgh’s recent crime wave.
He said: “It’s something that in the past we couldn’t have really used, but now that we’re a single organisation we can call on national assets to support local policing, and that’s what we’ve done. What it offers us is, literally, an eye in the sky.
“Across the last week in Edinburgh we have secured the services of the helicopter because we really want to do something about housebreaking, and the force nationally wants to support us in that.
“It’s unacceptable the level of housebreaking that we have seen in the last few months. I’m delighted to say it’s starting to go down, but we won’t rest until we arrest all of those who are responsible and we see a continued and a sustained reduction in the number that are occurring.
“We’ve got some way to go before we achieve that, and that’s why the helicopter is here and that’s why, day-in day-out, we’re arresting individuals responsible for crime.
“The helicopter has been here all week. The week before that, we had more than 100 reports of kids or young people on stolen motorbikes across the city – using them for either stealing other vehicles or breaking into houses.
“In the last week since the helicopter’s been around you could count the number of incidents that have been reported to us on one hand. So, the level of suppression around incidents like that is significant, and the helicopter has a huge part to play in that.
“A couple of weeks ago we had a really important arrest. We arrested three very well-known Edinburgh housebreakers and the helicopter was integral to that.
“It was part of the surveillance, and part of the pursuit of the individuals. Without it, I don’t think we would have been able to get out hands on them.
“I think those who are committing housebreakings know the power of the helicopter – they know it can record evidence, they know it can identify them and they know it can follow them from a distance safely and securely. They’re not daft.”
To help officers track down and identify criminals, the force’s Eurocopter EC135 has a raft of sophisticated gadgets packed within its compact cabin, including infrared cameras and thermal imaging. The chopper’s day-time cameras are so powerful they can even zoom in on a car’s registration plate as it speeds along a road hundreds of feet below.
Meanwhile, a full suite of radio communications allows those on board to keep in touch with police on the ground and co-ordinate movements.
Officers in Edinburgh had to bid for use of the helicopter – which is shared across Scotland – by demonstrating their need for it based on local policing issues.
Inspector Nick Whyte, who heads up the Glasgow-based Air Support Unit, revealed the squad’s staff of six full-time officers required six weeks of training before they could take part in operations.
He said: “It’s quite difficult, just due to the streets and the geography of Edinburgh, when a lot of the anti-ocial behaviour is stemming from individuals on motorbikes. But a safe way of dealing with that problem is to deploy air support.
“We can monitor these individuals from the air and we can record evidence – and ultimately, if we go for court proceedings at a later date, that will be crucial. It’s all about safety.
“Quite often if a pursuit becomes dangerous – through the manner of driving or the speeds involved, particularly in a built-up area – we are keen to put an end to that, and if that means putting an end to the pursuit we’ll do it. But rather than just standing down, air support can be brought in and we can monitor their behaviour and follow them.
“And ultimately when they decide to stop the vehicle – for example if they go into a house or hide in a bush – we’ve got constant observations on them and we can relay that back to police officers on the ground and direct them in.”
As well as tackling vehicle crime and housebreakings across the city, Police Scotland’s helicopter has proved instrumental during armed incidents, sieges and robberies.
It’s also played a large role in tracking down vulnerable missing persons. Just last Thursday, an elderly woman was rescued by the chopper after becoming lost while out walking her dogs in Tay Forest Park in Dunkeld.
But the memory of the tragedy in Glasgow one and a half years ago, in which a police helicopter crashed into The Clutha Vaults pub – killing all three crew members and seven others – still hangs heavy.
Revealing the stringent safety measures that are in place, Insp Whyte insisted the chopper won’t leave the ground if cloud cover is lower than 350 feet over a built-up area, or visibility less than one kilometre.
“Safety is paramount,” he said. “I would like to think that when they hear the helicopter people feel safe. We’re keeping people safe. It’s nothing to be alarmed about.”
Chopper boss says: ‘I understand noise complaints’
Despite insisting the force was “keeping people safe” through its use of the helicopter, the Air Support Unit’s Inspector Nick Whyte admitted he sympathised with residents getting “a bit cranky” over the noise.
Indeed, the helicopter boss revealed he had become so fed-up with a BBC chopper hovering above his house during the Commonwealth Games that he had even submitted a complaint.
He said: “Our helicopter is very modern. It’s got a particularly unique tail called a Fenestron and the engines are unique as well. It’s actually designed to reduce noise. It’s a pretty quiet helicopter. We are very conscious of being noisy. We try to reduce the disruption and we can only apologise for that. But, ultimately, if there’s something happening and air support is required we need to go and deal with it.”