With the Portland Police Bureau struggling to keep precincts staffed, WW has learned that funding for the cops' two single-engine Cessnas costs nearly double what the city budgets to run the planes and is sucking money out of other programs such as the vice squad and gang enforcement.

And the bureau's newly bought second plane has barely been used because it spent most of last year in the shop.

Portland is hardly a wide-open expanse, but police here use planes instead of helicopters when they want to follow a drug dealer, hunt down a burglar or scope out a property where they suspect crimes are being committed. Police say the planes are cheaper to operate than copters and are used mainly for investigations, not traffic patrols (see box, right).

The Police Bureau spent $821,000—almost all from federal homeland security grants—to buy and upgrade a second plane: a Cessna 182. They bought it for $267,000 in 2004, then spent another $554,000 installing a thermal imaging system ($246,000), air-to-ground microwave communications ($101,000), GPS ($40,000) and a new radio ($32,000), among other items.

That upgrade kept the plane in the shop from November 2005 until July 2006. Police then used it on a handful of training flights before discovering problems with the new radio. They sent it back to the company that installed the gear—Hillsboro Aviation Inc.

Hillsboro Aviation didn't charge for the new round of work, which kept the plane out of action until last month. It sat in its hangar in Vancouver until Tuesday, March 6, grounded due to poor weather.

Was it worth paying 800 grand for a plane that's barely been used? Cmdr. Dave Benson, head of tactical operations for the police, says yes. A second plane, he says, lets police use two at once in a disaster and will save on costly maintenance from overusing one. Plus, the new Cessna 182 is larger than the other, a Cessna 172, which allows it to hold more of the high-tech gear.

"We needed a bigger airplane to be a better platform for all this stuff that we carry," Benson says. "Once we get the squawks out, it'll be very reliable."

Not counting the federal grants for the new plane, the air-support program in fiscal year 2005-06 cost $91,953, about the salary of one and a quarter patrol officers. The city earmarked $49,065 for the 8-year-old program and the rest—$42,888—came from other police programs, like the vice squad and gang enforcement.

Benson says the city has long failed to give enough money to the air program. This year, the city set aside $52,582, but with the fiscal year more than half over, the program has already spent $61,638 and will probably top $100,000, Benson says.

Benson calls that price "a bargain." Yet as police consider staff cuts to the North Portland precinct in St. Johns, some question spending money on a plane that flies overhead at 3,000 feet instead of on officers on the street.

"It's ridiculous to take police off the street and have them up in the air," says the Rev. Roy Tate of North Portland's Christ Memorial Church. "People looking around and seeing an airplane up in the sky—what does that do for morale?"

The Police Bureau lets other agencies, like the Clark County and Columbia County sheriff's offices and the FBI, use its planes at no charge. Flight logs police gave WW for the last year were incomplete, but they show at least 56 hours in free flights for other agencies. At $94 an hour in operating costs, that's a $5,264 giveaway.

In return, Benson says, other agencies assist Portland free of charge, like during the 2003 Iraq war protests. That kind of cooperation is common, says Dan Schwarzbach, president of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association, a national nonprofit in Frederick, Md., that advises police.

But Schwarzbach says cash-strapped police agencies are starting to pool their money and fund regional air-support units. When budgets are tight, he says, expensive programs like air support are often the first to be cut.

"If you're not doing your work daily," Schwarzbach says, "then you could be looked at as a luxury area of law enforcement."