TORONTO - Four new police helicopters will help fight the car-theft crisis and assist searches for missing vulnerable people, the province and Toronto-area police forces say.

The four police services -- Toronto, Peel Regional, Halton Regional and Durham Regional -- banded together to ask the government to create more air support for the region. At the moment, two forces in the area have one helicopter each that they share with other police forces based on need and timing.

The Ontario Provincial Police will buy four helicopters at a cost of about $36 million and the province has earmarked $10 million to operate them over the next three years, Solicitor General Michael Kerzner said.

He said they have not yet decided if the OPP will operate the helicopters themselves on behalf of those four police forces or if they will be leased out to those police services.

The OPP called the provincewide rise in car thefts in recent years “unprecedented,” driven by the demand for high-end vehicles that are shipped to Africa and Europe. The force said last week that nearly 3,000 cars were stolen in the province over the previous seven weeks.

The majority of Ontario's stolen vehicles are either driven or transported to Montreal and slipped out of the country through the Quebec city's port, the province said.

“As the criminals are getting more sophisticated, so are we,” Kerzner said. “And this government has said it's enough.If we have helicopters, we will be able to find these criminals who are on the highways and respond.”

Details of how it will work in practice will come in time, Kerzner said, without committing to a date to have the new helicopters in the sky.

The purchase was outlined in the provincial budget released last week, but there were few details. The four choppers will be added to the lone helicopter in Durham, east of Toronto. Nearby York Regional Police also has its own helicopter, while the OPP already have a pair.

Durham Regional police has had its chopper, Air1, for 25 years.

Deputy Chief Chris Kirkpatrick said the police helicopter has saved lives over the past quarter century and can be at any scene within its 2,500-square kilometre jurisdiction within minutes.

Air1, which can respond any time day or night, had 860 calls for service last year, he said. In 147 of those calls, the police helicopter found people, either those evading police or missing vulnerable people.

The helicopter is equipped with thermal imaging that makes it easier to find people hiding or those lost in offbeat areas.

The air unit is especially good at finding missing vulnerable people, particularly the elderly who have dementia and may wander away from home.

“When we have somebody missing like that, it comes down to time and finding that person and this is an incredible asset for that,” Kirkpatrick said.

“It's really assisted in finding them quickly and getting them back to safety and getting them back to their families.”

The eye in the sky also makes the job safer for officers on the ground, Kirkpatrick said.

“When we have the air support, it is that overwatch for us that can light up an area, and it can see things in ways that we can't on the ground,” he said. “It gives them a holistic picture of the scene and then they're able to radio that to the members on the ground.”

Toronto police, which has not had its own helicopter for decades, appreciates the move by the government.

“Access to helicopters will modernize police front-line response across jurisdictional boundaries in the GTA, facilitating the tracking and apprehending of criminals involved in violent crimes such as home invasions and carjackings,” Chief Myron Demkiw said in a statement.

“Air support will enhance police capabilities to respond to these often dynamic and dangerous events and will also help police conduct searches for missing vulnerable people.”

But Ontario's New Democrat Leader Marit Stiles said the province has its priorities wrong and it should instead be investing in the overrun court system that is plagued by delays and short staffing.

“We're dealing with chasing after the car once it's already been stolen, so I'd like to see us prevent the car theft in the first place,” she said.

With jails well over capacity across Ontario, Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner said the money could be better spent elsewhere.

“Eighty per cent of the people in provincial jails are just waiting for their trial, that's how backlogged the system is,” Schreiner said.

“And instead of investing in fixing that problem, the government's buying helicopters. To me, it's just a misallocation of their priorities.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 2, 2024.