Illinois police chiefs group president under investigation over helicopter program
Seven years ago, a small-town police chief launched a big dream to nab criminals and thwart terrorists from the air.

Chief Timothy Swanson began a police helicopter program that initially drew raves.

He secured six-figure federal grants. Nearly 100 suburbs chipped in with money. He won a national award and became president of the statewide police chiefs group.

But along the way, Swanson didn't disclose that he was running the program with a convicted felon. Or that they had expanded into side businesses to which Swanson helped steer more government money.

Now his helicopters have been taken away and Swanson is the subject of criminal investigations, records show.

Authorities have not spelled out what specifically led to the program's fall. What is known is that officials in southwest suburban Countryside, where he launched the helicopter effort, raised questions about possible misspending and insider deals.

And in Kankakee County, where he moved the program in 2009, questions arose about how he used and maintained millions of dollars worth of helicopters and gear that taxpayers had lent him.

A Tribune investigation also found that Swanson raised cash — much of it taxpayer money for years through a nonprofit that the state said wasn't legally allowed to accept funds.

Swanson, who now works for the Kankakee County sheriff and is police chief of Momence, declined comment. His attorney, Lawrence Dirksen, noted in a letter obtained by the Tribune that Swanson is the subject of "various ongoing criminal investigations." That led the longtime chief to invoke his Fifth Amendment right to refuse to provide evidence that could be used against him.

The silent treatment is a far cry from how Swanson passionately pitched his program in 2005 as key to keeping Chicagoland safe.

'Superstar'

Back then, places such as Los Angeles were swarming with dedicated police helicopters. But metro Chicago had none.

Chicago police and state police had cut their pricey units years before. Only one department flew a helicopter, far north Winthrop Harbor, and it was on loan from a businessman.

Pushing to fill the void was Swanson — a tall, then-46-year-old chief with a deep voice and a helicopter pilot's license.

He formed a nonprofit — Illinois Regional Air Support Service — and told the state it would become "a superstar in regards to meeting the currently unsupported needs of Illinois."

The military lent him a 1960s-era surplus helicopter, which he equipped with a $170,000 federal grant. His nonprofit got area agencies to send money, usually $1,000 a town. He christened the program "Air 2" — a takeoff on the old state police Air 1.

Able to speed up to 115 mph, its rotors soon hovered above car chases and barricaded houses. And, outfitted with an infrared camera, it helped departments look for missing residents and fleeing criminals.

He was then lent a second military surplus helicopter and got a $295,000 federal grant for more equipment.

Some area chiefs saw a scrappy lawman tirelessly raising cash for an expensive program.