SYRACUSE, N.Y. — A high-tech helicopter has helped Sheriff Kevin Walsh chase down fugitives, airlift accident victims and spearhead search-and-rescue missions in the Syracuse region of central New York since 1999. In 2012, Air-1 could be grounded by budget cuts.
Walsh's proposed solution? Slap a corporate logo on the Bell 407 chopper to raise ad revenue and keep her flying.
"We (police) have put up with donut jokes for our entire existence. I think we can tolerate jokes about the Price Chopper chopper or the Wegmans whirlybird showing up," Walsh said, referring to two supermarket chains. "I don't like the idea of our having to fund public services with private donations, but the option is not to have that public service."
While hawking naming rights for municipal stadiums, parks, mass-transit stations and other public entities is nothing new for the nation's cash-strapped cities, sponsorship deals with police agencies are much less common, and typically less lucrative.
On top of that, watchdog groups — and many in uniform — are wary about potential conflicts when law enforcement cozies up with advertisers, such as officers possibly looking the other way on matters involving corporate sponsors.
"I feel very confident my officers wouldn't be compromised," said John Kelly, police chief of Littleton, Mass. A town-approved $12,000-a-year contract with a grocery chain pays for one of Kelly's five patrol cars. In return, the cruiser has been adorned for nine years with a modest Donelan's Supermarkets bumper sticker.
Kelly said he's endured plenty of flack, but "my position is I have to give my officers tools to provide the necessary services our citizens paid for. At 2:30 in the morning, someone laying out on a local highway because of an accident really doesn't care who's paying for the cruiser or what it says on its side."
In 2002, dozens of cities jumped at an offer by a Charlotte, N.C., company to provide new police cars for $1 each in exchange for festooning them with race car-style logos. The venture fizzled, in part because the line between tactful and tacky advertising can be a narrow one, and the company has gone out of business.
"We can't let cutesy things" subtract from "making us look serious," said police Chief Philip Thorne in Springfield, Fla., which turned down a chance to save $500,000 over three years.
"It sounded like a good idea," recalled Bruce Owens, police chief in Summerville, S.C. "But the main concern is the potential ethical issues you might encounter, because no one gives something for nothing."
Russ Haven of the New York Public Interest Research Group fears the drive to find sponsorship arrangements in budget-strapped times "may in some instances seem unseemly or feel like it's going too far.
"When it comes to law enforcement, you have this additional layer of concerns," Haven said. "If the sponsor becomes a target of an investigation, does the public have confidence they'll be treated equally under the law?"
In addition, "what's the appropriate valuation for naming rights?" Haven said. "Does it put government in the position of deciding what is an inappropriate sponsor, which could raise First Amendment issues?"
In Syracuse, the sheriff's budget woes in recent years deepened this fall when the county Legislature eliminated $591,000 in taxpayer aid in 2012 for the helicopter known by its radio call sign. Bought for $2.3 million, Air-1 costs around $500,000 on average to operate and maintain each year.
Walsh has appealed for private donations and hopes to secure federal grants to help pay for Air-1's four-pilot roster. Getting a commercial operator's license from the Federal Aviation Administration to allow him to charge fees for medical flights might come through soon, potentially raising $125,000 to $200,000 a year.
Selling naming rights could prove vital in filling the gap. Talks are under way with two potential sponsors who remain unidentified, and Walsh's administrative chief, John Balloni, hopes to add at least $100,000 a year in advertising revenue.
While conceding that Air-1 might have to stop operations in 2012, Balloni said: "There will be some revenue streams coming in and we have full expectation we'll keep it in the air. The extent of our success in 2012 will determine how much we fly in 2013."
Landing private funding wouldn't be a first for a police airborne unit. In Missouri, St. Louis County police got cash donations and electronic equipment worth upward of $200,000 from three helicopter manufacturers in 2004 in exchange for putting the companies' decals on three of its six choppers, said Capt. Kurt Frisz, a pilot.
"It kept us flying at a critical time and got us equipment we wouldn't have been able to afford otherwise," said Frisz, who says the decals are hardly visible from the ground. "The value for the vendor is if a picture of our helicopter shows up in a law enforcement trade magazine such as Air Beat."
Onondaga County sheriffs have deployed helicopters of their own since snapping up a Korean War-era bubble model in 1975.
Supporters praise the new chopper's versatility and credit it as a vital public safety tool not only in the county but in emergencies across a five-county metro area of 640,000 people along Lake Ontario's southeast corner.
Air-1 and its crew logged hundreds of hours of missions in 2011. It airlifted a badly injured toddler who was run over by a lawnmower, alerted sheriff's deputies to a rifle-toting fugitive hiding up a tree and rescued a man whose snowmobile plunged through the ice on a lake.
Opponents view it as a financial burden that duplicates services already provided at no cost to taxpayers by private medevac helicopters and a state police chopper stationed in Syracuse that runs missions farther afield in upstate New York.
A county Legislature resolution to auction off Air-1 was voted down 18-1 on Dec. 6. Walsh will likely renew his funding request when the Legislature returns Jan. 1 with seven new members.
"Short of robbing banks," said Balloni, his deputy, "any way we can keep this ship flying is the way we're going to do it. I took an oath to protect and serve and, to me, the lives it saves are what's sacred."