CLEVELAND Police have celebrated the launch of their own £1.78m air support unit.

The force decided to buy its own helicopter after the Durham and Northumbria forces chose to pull out of the existing North-East air support operation.

Cleveland, Durham and Northumbria had been at loggerheads over the future of the £700,000 service – so Cleveland Police announced they were to go it alone.

Yesterday, at their headquarters in Middlesbrough, officers unveiled the helicopter, which has been funded by the Government and Cleveland Police Authority.

The helicopter, which will be based at Durham Tees Valley Airport, is equipped with thermal imaging cameras for locating criminals and missing people.

It can do the equivalent of 454 officer hours searching an area in only 12 minutes.

The air support unit will be able to provide video footage of events, direct officers to incidents and also be used as a air ambulance when required.

Derek Bonnard, deputy chief constable of Cleveland, said: “I am absolutely delighted that Cleveland now has its own air operations unit.

“The fact we have one helicopter solely covering the Cleveland area means that we can further improve our effectiveness in responding to incidents, locating people and gathering evidence at scenes.

“It is a key operational tool of modern policing that has helped us reduce crime by 17 per cent so far this year.

“Equally important is the work we will now able to do in the community, showing people what benefits the air support service provides and helping to get across key safety and crime-fighting messages.”

Cleveland Police Authority chairman, Councillor Dave McLuckie, said: “When the Durham and Northumbria forces decided to end the regional air support consortium we recognised that the only way forward was to establish our own unit because of the importance of air support to modern-day policing, especially in an area such as Cleveland with both tightly-knit urban areas and major industrial sites.

“We’re grateful for the support we have received from both the Government and local MPs, including Stockton North MP Frank Cook, who initiated a Parliamentary debate on the issue and will be with us for the launch of the new service.”