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Police aviation manager discusses duties

Staff Photo: Keith Farner Lou Gregoire, manager of the Gwinnett County Police Aviation Unit, gave a presentation on Saturday morning at Briscoe Field to members of the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 690. Gregoire discussed how his department assists officers on the ground, and helps with traffic enforcement, daytime burglaries and police car chases.

Staff Photo: Keith Farner Lou Gregoire, manager of the Gwinnett County Police Aviation Unit, gave a presentation on Saturday morning at Briscoe Field to members of the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 690. Gregoire discussed how his department assists officers on the ground, and helps with traffic enforcement, daytime burglaries and police car chases.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Thanksgiving Day turned out to be an eventful one at work for Lou Gregoire.

The manager of the Gwinnett County Police Aviation Unit began by flying over Sugarloaf Mills to assist officers on the ground with suspects who had stolen a car after a homicide earlier that week. But while they waited for the stolen car to move, a Georgia State Patrol officer began a chase of a suspect in a Scion on Sugarloaf Parkway moving along Ga. Highway 120 from Interstate 85.

A traffic stop for a seat belt violation quickly turned into a chase back toward Lawrenceville, and then onto 85 again. Gregoire then radioed back to his county colleagues working the homicide investigation.

"They were like, ... 'Let's go get that car,'" Gregoire said on Saturday morning during a monthly breakfast put on by Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 690.

Gregoire narrated a chase for the crowd where the suspect crashed his vehicle, suffered a broken collarbone, road rash and was later Tasered by officers and arrested.

"I cry with laughter every time I watch this," Gregoire said.

Gregoire, who has worked with Gwinnett Police since 1996, and the Aviation Unit since 2007, explained to the crowd how his department works, its coverage areas and limitations, plans for the future and examples of incidents they've worked.

"You want to hear something funny?" he said. "They pay me for this."

Gregoire is part of a five-man crew and works primarily during the day. But Gregoire and his colleagues, who fly the McDonnell Douglas MD500E helicopter, work day and night and respond to on-call situations. They fly between 700 and 800 hours per year, or about 60 per month.

"My job is to help our officers protect you guys," he said.

Joel Levine, publicity chair for the EAA Chapter 690, said he was surprised to hear of the lack of communication between departments in light of the recent service delivery settlement.

"I assumed communication between law enforcement was across-the-board," he said. "I was surprised."

Levine said he didn't think the general public knows the kind of work Gregoire and his colleagues do, which he called a shame.

"His program was fascinating, and he did a super job," Levine said.

The unit monitors crime trends around the county and plans patrols accordingly. Gregoire said the aviation unit helped officers stem a daytime burglary spike recently when about 30 Berkmar High students would leave the school at lunch time to burglarize houses.

Gregoire said officers can fly across Gwinnett County in seven or eight minutes, and most often assist on-the-ground officers with the DUI task force and other traffic enforcement, daytime burglaries, aerial surveillance. But they also conduct photo flights for county officials, which hold transportation contractors accountable, fire spotting and occasionally marijuana spotting, although he said that has decreased in recent years.

An infrared camera on the helicopter helps the aviation officers update on-the-ground officers as an incident changes. Although during a chase, the suspect often knows they're being watched, he said.

"If I'm watching you, you know I'm watching you, because it's like a gnat buzzing around your ear," Gregoire said.

Gregoire said county officials plan to propose as part of the 2014 SPLOST a tax that totally funds public safety, such as police, fire and emergency medical personnel. Because the helicopters are aging, and Gregoire and his department constantly look for ways to extend the lives of the helicopters, they hope to order a new one in 2015.

In the meantime, they hope to find a federally seized aircraft, possibly fixed wing, which would be cheaper than a $3.5 million new helicopter.

"It's a balancing act for how they want to spend the money," he said.

Typically, they fly 500 feet off the ground during the day and 1,000 feet at night, but Gregoire said they don't have the same restrictions as airplanes.