A new Alachua County Sheriff took over this week, and Clovis Watson will need to help decide what to do about the future of the erstwhile Joint Aviation Unit.
The joint helicopter unit disbanded on Sept. 30, following months of fraught negotiations between Gainesville City Manager Lee Feldman and former Sheriff Sadie Darnell about a funding split between the area’s two largest law enforcement entities: the Gainesville Police Department and the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.
Now, after more than two decades, it is run strictly by the sheriff’s office and is known as the Sheriff’s Office Aviation Unit.
The Joint Aviation Unit was a cooperative effort between the two that provided aerial support to officers and deputies on the ground. Three helicopters were part of the unit, which allowed for enough crew members to pilot the skies seven days a week. According to GPD, the unit would respond to crimes, missing persons and assist Alachua County Fire Rescue and Gainesville Fire Rescue with forest and building fires.
Over the summer, Feldman exchanged emails with Darnell regarding the agreement between the city and sheriff’s office. The communications indicated disagreement regarding the funding of the unit, which ultimately led to Feldman’s decision to make aviation a “one shift assignment and be operated solely by the Sheriff.” In his email, Feldman explained that the city terminated the agreement at 11:59 p.m. on September 30.
“The city doesn’t oppose an aviation unit. The issue was whether the city had the obligation or should have the obligation to pay 50% of it when it’s a county-wide function,” Feldman told WUFT News.
Since its inception, both agencies had split the cost of what it took to operate the helicopters. Along with sharing the costs, the departments also shared shifts.
The agreement’s termination means less time with law enforcement overhead. When the two departments worked together, the unit would operate 12 hours a day, six days a week, with the exception of Sundays with only eight hours of coverage. Since the responsibility has fallen on the sheriff’s office alone, operation times have shortened to five days a week for eight hours a day.
According to sheriff’s office pilot Richard Bray, the Gainesville police helicopter was damaged in a training accident in June 2019 and is still undergoing repairs. Bray had been with the joint unit for 23 years and in October transitioned into the newly designated Sheriff’s Office Aviation Unit.
The public shouldn’t be too concerned, he said, because personnel assigned to the unit from the sheriff’s office are still working and have the same expertise.
Sheriff’s office spokesperson Art Forgey said the city’s termination of the joint agreement could hurt response times to some situations since there are not as many aviation officers ready to fly at a moment’s notice.
Still, the city and sheriff’s office understand that if an instance arises where city police request use of the helicopter, the sheriff’s office will cooperate and see that the departments work together.
“We are not going to refuse to fly the helicopter,” Forgey said. “If the city asks us to use it, we will assist them in any way we can.”
Watson was sworn in as the new Alachua County Sheriff earlier this week after defeating Darnell in the August election. He did not respond to WUFT’s three attempts made over three weeks in the fall in an effort to reach him with questions about the future of the shared aviation unit.
Three helicopters were utilized by the department: one for the city police department, another for the sheriff’s office and a spare. Feldman said that the GPD helicopter “has been non-operational for over a year.”
The funds that the city had spent on the unit have been reallocated during the city’s fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
Feldman said the money will be designated to “fund our community paramedicine program in the fire department in our community co-responder program with mental health counselors to pair with our police officers.”