They're big, loud, and many consider them harbingers of trouble, but helicopters over the Perry Hall area are no cause for panic, according to Baltimore County police.
With the recent increase in home burglaries, Perry Hall residents have reported seeing more police helicopters buzzing over the area. The knee-jerk response for many residents has been to immediately call police to find out what's happening, according to Capt. Gordon Skinner of the Parkville police precinct, which covers the Perry Hall area northwest of Belair Road.
"Usually, we're just on patrol," Skinner said, adding that the majority of the time, helicopters are simply searching for lost children or seniors.
"It's not just limited to felonies and car chases. We use helicopters to search for anyone in distress," he said. "If you see something suspicious, definitely call, but don't just call every time you see one."
Mike Condon, a Baltimore County police officer and U.S. Air Force commander, assists in flying and maintaining the county's three police helicopters.
Condon said the regular presence of helicopters over communities actually increases public safety.
"You're never safer than when we're there. Crime stops," he said.
When helicopters are used for finding criminal suspects, police use the spot lights, an intercom system, thermal imaging and a video transmitter to help find them. K-9 units and patrol officers also assist on the ground.
But one of their greatest tools is actually area residents.
"We'll make some louder passes, like you rev up a car, and then we can use rubbernecking to our advantage," Condon said.
"Citizens will look out their windows to see what's happening. If they see someone hiding in their neighbor's yard, they'll call 911," he said.
Baltimore County's aviation program is going on its 25th year, although its three helicopters currently in use are still relatively new—less than five years old. Helicopters travel at 135 knots and can fly from the storage hanger at Martin State Airport to Towson in less than five minutes. Travel time to Perry Hall is even quicker.
Condon described the helicopters as "extremely safe." No county helicopter has ever been involved in a crash and the aviation program has received one of the highest safety ratings in the country, he said.
They cost about $350 per hour to operate, Condon said, adding, "People often cannot understand how a helicopter can be cost effective in a search."
If an officer is searching for a missing child in a townhouse community, it may take him or her 10-15 minutes to search the backyards of one block. An officer in a helicopter, however, can effectively survey 70 homes in under a minute, Condon said.
Helicopters can also cover large fields, marshy areas and dangerous obstacles like chemical spills.
"Occasionally, someone will say, 'You woke my kid up.' But especially after they find out we were looking for a missing child, they change their opinion," he said. "As soon as they know what we're doing, they're on board."
Still, Skinner said officers are aware of the public's concerns when they see police searching overhead.
"We try to fly neighborly," he said.
Do you get concerned when you see a helicopter over Perry Hall? Do you assume the worst? Tell us in the comments.