Watching over the sprawl: The story behind L.A.’s helicopters

William Stupp
October 8, 2013
Filed under City, Features, Local

To the city’s non-natives, they are an inexplicable presence. Always circling overhead, they rattle newcomers and make for exciting stories to tell their friends back home. To locals, the troupes of helicopters patrolling the skies at all hours are just another part of life in Los Angeles. With the city’s never-ending sprawl and clogged freeways, it is easy to understand how, in 1950, a Popular Mechanics article by former New York times Science Editor, Waldemar Kaempffert envisioned an improved future 50 years down the line including a city in Southern California where hundreds of thousands of people took their daily commute “using the family helicopter kept on the roof.”

Today, most people cannot stand the noise of the hundred or so helicopters operating in Los Angeles throughout the day, let alone the envisioned future with a racket of thousands. Television news stations, hospitals, city tours and the paparazzi all utilize the superb mobility of helicopters to get around the crowded city. The most visible – and audible – source of airborne disturbance frustration, however, seems to be the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). The force’s Air Support Division (ASD) is the largest police air force in the country. All aircraft are based downtown at the Hooper Heliport, the largest rooftop heliport in the world, according to Assistant Commanding Officer of the Air Support Division and Acting Commander Lieutenant Phillip Smith.

Every year, the Tactical Flight Officers (TFO) of the LAPD complete approximately 50,000 missions across the Greater Los Angeles Area in the 18 aircraft operated by the ASD. The TFO is among LAPD’s most selective forces. With its rigorous educational and tactical training program, TFO employees are some of LAPD’s most highly trained and valued. A potential candidate for TFO instruction must have five years of field experience and be considered among “the very best” of officers in its department, according to the LAPD website.The selection process is one the most rigorous in the force.

Once accepted, an officer goes through the ASD’s unique training program. Certified Flight Instructors (CFIs) with experience flying in Los Angeles instruct pilots and observers in a program that involves continual training, even when an officer is certified to fly. All of the training seems to pay off. The ASD has not had a single officer fatality since 1991.

Formed in 1956 with one helicopter, the ASD was tasked with the sole mission of enforcing traffic laws and responding to accidents. Such was its task for the first 15 years of the division’s existence, until the early 1970s when the usefulness of helicopters in quick-response scenarios became apparent. The Division has continued to evolve, and today it is part of virtually every aspect of the LAPD’s crime-fighting operations.

“We are fully integrated into the whole policing plan,” Smith said in an interview at his office. Smith has been with the LAPD for 26 years, starting out in the North Hollywood district and moving to South L.A during the late 80s. Later he worked running undercover vice operations before being selected for transfer to the ASD. Smith is in charge of all aviation operations in addition to running the administrative side operations until a new Commanding Officer of the Division begins work.

For the LAPD, the ASD is a top priority and a central part of the overall law enforcement and crime reduction strategy.

“Anybody wearing the uniform understands what we do. [Every officer] utilizes us as a crime fighting tool, a tactical tool, a safety tool,” Smith said.

The 503 square miles of policing area make it impossible for the LAPD to manage an adequate police presence throughout the city with the typical officer on every corner. The LAPD employs about one officer for every 426 citizens in its jurisdiction. For New York, the figure is 228.

But policing Los Angeles requires a different strategy. The LAPD sacrifices size for speed. In a sprawling city of various terrain and a mishmash of densely and sparsely populated areas, mobility is key, Smith explains. Rather than waiting to take flight until calls are received, at least two helicopters are on patrol everyday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 a.m.

“[TFO observers] Paint a picture for responding units on the ground. They warn officers of potential risks. The direction of a fleeing thief, the location of a hidden gunman. Any information that could save lives,” Smith said.

Only rarely do helicopters witness and initiate a response to crime in progress. Last year, helicopters were the first responders to around 16,000 incidents. In addition to their supporting role, the LAPD insists ASD patrols play a significant role in crime deterrence. The idea is that, to a criminal prepared to break into a car, the sound of a helicopter in the area will either deter completely the act of theft, or at least displace it to a different area. Police refer to a single study from the late 1960s that linked the presence of helicopter patrols to a drop in crime in the area around the University of Southern California (USC).

But the effect of crime deterrence is essentially impossible to measure, and many doubt the efficacy of helicopter patrols in deterring crime. Other studies show random patrols in other cities as not having a measurable effect on crime. Indeed, the citizens of Los Angeles express more frustration than gratitude toward the presence and noise of helicopters. Countless blog posts and comments across the Internet complain of LAPD helicopters in circular orbits disturbing the peace.

The tactics and behaviors of police helicopters can seem strange to those who are disturbed without apparent reason.

“The helicopter circled twice above us as we were walking,” Sarah Tamashiro (junior) said in an email, explaining a recent experience on campus which happened Saturday night around 9 P.M.

“When they shone the spotlight on us, we couldn’t help but bust out laughing because of how ridiculous the situation was, being watched from above while walking back to our dorm. Last year, we heard of helicopters being used to bust up parties. It just seemed so unnecessary.” Tamashiro said.

Smith acknowledges the disturbance caused by low-flying helicopters, but said that it is necessary in responding to crime. He explains the role of the helicopters, responding to a nighttime report of a breaking and entering of a house with the residents inside.

“People could be killed. We’re sorry, but in the interest of public safety, we have to be here,” Smith said.

Regarding the presence of helicopters around Occidental’s campus, Smith points to crimes attracted to college campuses, such as bike theft or car robberies, and explains that all colleges in Los Angeles might be patrolled as a crime deterrent. As for the shining of lights on pedestrians. Smith said that he cannot speak to the specific motivations of a pilot on certain patrol. He thought a pilot shining a light on a pair of females could be justified as a further deterrent against criminals committing an assault or robbery, describing the two women as “walking victims.”

Still, the loud roar of the low-flying LAPD helicopters remains controversial among the people of Los Angeles but is unlikely to abate anytime soon. A recent measure to regulate the noise of helicopters in California would have exempted Police and Fire vehicles. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says it will refrain from regulating air travel over Los Angeles. The LAPD sees the regular use of helicopters as an invaluable aid to supporting the safety and success of officers on the ground and central to its law enforcement strategy, and is unlikely to change of its own accord.

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