A proposal to renovate a police helicopter hangar to improve the department’s response to illegal street racing is up in the air after a strange proceeding at City Hall on Tuesday.
The Detroit City Council voted 8-1 to approve a $336,989 contract to renovate the hangar at the Coleman A. Young International Airport, but a short time later, the police department asked the council to invoke a procedure to reconsider the contract and pull it from the agenda. Gail Fulton, the council liaison to Mayor Mike Duggan’s office, said DPD needs more time for “due diligence” and will revisit the contract at the beginning of next year. The request, which came after weeks of debate in a council committee, caused frustration among council members, who ultimately reversed their votes but were left confused about why the contract was pulled.
- Detroit police green-light plan to stop illegal drag racing
- Despite hundreds of arrests, impounded cars, Detroit drag racers race on
- How Detroit plans to end ‘traffic violence epidemic’
“I don’t understand what we’re doing here, because we already voted on it and it was voted up,” said Council Member Angela Whitfield-Calloway, who cast the lone vote against the contract. “I think the administration has wasted our time.”
The city’s municipal airport is set for a major redevelopment with last month’s approval of Detroit’s first Airport Layout Plan in three decades. The Federal Aviation Administration’s approval of the city’s plan is expected to bring in more than $100 million in federal grants over the next decade to rebuild the airport. According to the mayor’s office, the contract was pulled to ensure that the hangar renovation plans conform with the Airport Layout Plan.
The council previously approved a $241,150 contract with Great Lakes Aviation Services to fix a 50-year-old helicopter used for traffic enforcement. At-Large Council Member Coleman Young said the helicopter is an important tool to track speeding vehicles and illegal street races without having police cruisers chase drivers. He argued the hangar renovation is necessary to improve the conditions of pilots who work out of the city’s airport.
“The purpose of having the helicopter in the first place was so that we can reduce car chases, because you had instances where it was dangerous for the pursuer, being the police officer, but also the pursued, where you’ve had people who are in high speed chases who have crashed their cars and died on impact,” Young said Tuesday. “We have these helicopters for the purposes of being able to prevent that and also be able to track people who are doing donuts in front of people’s yards and who are engaging in illegal street racing.”
Young said drag racing is a “significant issue” across the city. DPD received 161 emergency calls for drag racing or drifting in the last 30 days, according to city data.
Last year, the police department committed 60 officers to curb its long-running issues with drag racing, driving and reckless driving. Questions about how DPD uses helicopters to track illegal activity, how many helicopters is uses and how the contract delay affects those efforts, didn’t receive a response Wednesday.
A breakdown of the repair funds provided by Whitfield-Calloway shows that the hangar renovations include improvements to administrative offices, bathroom and shower facilities, a kitchen, sleeping quarters, a new HVAC system, lighting, paint and other repairs.
Whitfield-Calloway, who represents District 2, did not agree with using American Rescue Plan Act funds for the hangar renovation. She’s not against renovating the facility, but said pandemic relief funds could be better used to address housing issues. In July, the council unanimously approved the contract for helicopter repairs paid for with ARPA funds.
“Although (hangar repair) does meet our funding requirements, it does not constitute an urgent nor does it constitute an immediate need,” Whitfield-Calloway said during an Oct. 27 committee meeting. “Detroit residents need ARPA funding for immediate direct assistance. Our citizens are suffering in the city.”
DPD has $18 million in budget savings from hundreds of staff vacancies. The department, on average, has had 350 open positions this year. The council used $7 million of the savings to pay for a contract with ShotSpotter Inc. to expand gunshot detection technology. Whitfield-Calloway argued that DPD has money in its budget to cover the hangar repairs without using ARPA funds.
At-Large Council Member Mary Waters said the police department’s budget should go toward replacing vacancies. She called the renovation a “unique opportunity” to make necessary upgrades to the hangar using one-time pandemic relief funds that must be spent before the end of 2026.
Young said using federal pandemic relief for the hangar repairs would free up the DPD budget to focus on hiring and retention.
Young noted that the department recently secured new labor agreements with two police unions that will cost DPD $40 million in the first year and grow to $87 million by year five. The council is considering appropriating $22.6 million to the police department to help cover the cost of pay increases negotiated in the labor agreements.
“I think we need every single dollar. We have to hire more officers and put them on the street,” Young said Tuesday.
DPD Cpt. Brandon Lewis told the council last week that the aviation unit needs a better environment to do its work. Pilots who are on-call, he said, stay at the hangar during their shift, much like how firefighters remain stationed at firehouses while waiting for the next emergency. Council Member Scott Benson, who represents District 3 on the city’s northeast side where the airport is located, described the conditions of the hangar as “terrible.”
“This gets our first responders into basic living conditions which will support their living there, sleeping there and working there,” Benson said. “It is a great investment. I also suggest looking at ARPA funds as once-in-a-lifetime dollars. When you get these types of dollars you invest in infrastructure.”
Overall, Detroit received $826 million in pandemic aid. Only 5% of the funds had been spent by the end of October, according to the city.
Of the federal funding, $50 million was directed to DPD to support traffic enforcement activities, gun violence initiatives, training facility improvements and emergency medical services at fire stations. The department has encumbered $12.6 million from those funds for various contracts which have yet to receive approval.
Young said he is exploring additional solutions to deter street racing, like designating specific areas where it’s allowed in a controlled environment, but he didn’t go into details this week. He couldn’t be reached for comment on Wednesday.
“I know we can’t just arrest our way out of this problem, and we do want to encourage our young people to engage and be involved in racing and the industry,” Young said Tuesday. “We just have to provide a positive avenue for them to do that.”