I won a competition over on Twitter (@ladawncp) hosted by the Metropolitan Police Air Support Unit (@mpsinthesky) by answering a simple question: what are the registrations for their 3 helicopters?
And yes, I am a big enough geek to know the answer to that question. I know the answer to that question because I follow them and their adventures in hunting down bad guys hiding in bushes, finding lost people and reducing the general mayhem caused by vehicle pursuits. They take lots of beautiful pictures. And they almost always get the bad guys.
And they engage with the community they serve and protect, which is really the key to their success. They have nearly 31,000 followers over on Twitter and if you don't follow them, you should. Even if you don't live in London, you should, if for no other reason than it will give you plenty of ammunition to speak to your local police force and get them to communicate with your community as comprehensively as these officers do!
The ASU is based in Loughton, Essex so I had a trip of 50 miles (or so) around the top of the M25. I had left the house in plenty of time but found I had forgotten my picture ID so had to turn round to get my passport. Once on my way, I thought I was under the gun. Luckily, the usual parking lot that is the M25 was clear. I was there within 50 minutes.
I rang the buzzer and was directed to my parking. When I found the office, I was told I was an hour early. Oops, I got the time wrong. Better an hour early than an hour late, I always say.
I got a fantastic cup of tea courtesy of the Old Bill and put my feet up for an hour and waited for my geek compatriots (other people who had also known the helicopter registrations) to join me. We were also joined by a few officers visiting from Northern Ireland who were there to observe the ASU for the day.
The base is a former WWII POW camp. The buildings are listed and have a beautiful view of across all of London.
We were led to a classroom and shown a very professional slide deck all about the ASU including the role and responsibilities of the members of the team, the type of activity the ASU performs, and the best part, the nuts and bolts of the helicopters.
These machines are very impressive. They cost £5m each. They are reliable and flexible. Safety is obviously a big concern for the ASU. One helicopter was in the hangar in bits under maintenance. All 3 are Eurocopters manufactured in Germany and the ASU has one in maintenance most of the time to ensure that they are always in tip top shape. All the internal fittings can come out and can be reconfigured in any number of configurations. The camera is the most impressive. The quality of the zoom picture is seriously impressive (and a wee bit scary). From a great height, the camera on the helicopter can zoom in and display amazing quality pictures!
The helicopter is kitted out with numerous display screens showing infrared imaging, zoom pictures, and maps. The ASU can enter an address and pinpoint it on their map. Conversely, they can pinpoint a location and their computers tell them the address.
I was afraid to touch anything. I wouldn't even get into the helicopter despite the encouragement from the PCs to do so. I was afraid I would knock something and be billed £10,000 for it.
We then watched the helicopter take off which was almost as impressive as watching it land. What was absolutely incredible was the quality of the camera work. From the helicopter, the ASU can send photos to the commanders on the ground. There's even a gadget that allows the force on the ground to see what the helicopter is seeing. This helps find baddies hiding under bushes, in sheds, under cars and running down alleyways. It also helps find missing people, particularly useful in the water as long as the person's head is still above the water.
I am most happy to report that despite expecting to be the only female on the premises, not only was I joined by 4 other female geeks (and Twitter aficionados), there was also a female PC on the MPASU team.
@mpinthesky is providing a fab service to the public and I applaud the old bill for embracing this new and scary world of social media. They are doing it right, using humour, building relationships with the public and setting an example for forces all over the world. I really hope more follow suit, specifically Thames Valley, who beyond having an account aren't really engaging with the public.
I'd like to say a huge thank you to Tony and Ricc who did a great job on the day and were the most gracious and courteous of hosts. Your time and enthusiasm is greatly appreciated!