Police helicopters are one of the defining and dividing characteristics of life in Los Angeles. Many L.A. residents believe that they are a nuisance and a waste of money. Outside of L.A. people see movies like “Boyz n the Hood” and wonder in what kind of post-apocalyptic police state Angelenos live to warrant such an extreme crime-fighting tactic. But, beyond the noise, why are those helicopters up there, where did they come from and are they really worth the money?
The LAPD’s Air Support Division (ASD) – founded in 1956 – has been in existence for fifty-seven years. Initially operating with only one helicopter, the fleet has since expanded to nineteen helicopters and one fixed-wing airplane. These aircraft represent the largest municipal air fleet in the world. They are headquartered at the largest municipal helipad in the world, located downtown on the Western side of the L.A. River, in between Highway 101 and Cesar E. Chavez Avenue.
The helicopters cover 500 square miles of metropolitan Los Angeles, from the San Fernando Valley to San Pedro. Between 8:30am and 4:30am there are no fewer than two helicopters over L.A., flying in two-hour shifts. That there are usually only two in the air might seem surprising to some Angelenos since they seem to be heard all the time. But with an average speed of roughly 145mph, those helicopters can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. To give some perspective, a helicopter could fly over your house in Glendale, fly to Santa Monica and be back over your house in 20-30 minutes. However, the helicopters usually focus their efforts on high crime areas such as South Central L.A., Hollywood and MacArthur Park.
Originally used to monitor traffic, LAPD helicopters now work primarily in a support role for ground patrol units. They are generally used to set up perimeters, look for suspects or track suspects so they don’t completely elude officers on the ground. In 2012 a helicopter hovered over at least 20,000 crime scenes. However, helicopters rarely initiate pursuits or arrests. Of those 20,000 incidents, only around 400 were initiated because a helicopter crew witnessed a crime taking place.
The price tag for the entire Air Support Division is $20 million. That includes personnel costs, maintenance and fuel. On average, every hour a helicopter is in the air costs the city of Los Angeles $1,056. To be sure, this is a substantial amount of money, but surprisingly takes up less than 2% of the LAPD’s $1.4 billion budget. Compared to the quantity of crimes that helicopters are involved in, this is actually a good investment. The 20,000+ incidents that the ASD responded to represented roughly 20% of the total number of crimes in L.A. at that time.
However, it’s impossible to tell whether the ASD’s involvement made it significantly easier for ground patrol officers to stop a crime and/or make an arrest. And if the ASD is to be judged by the arrests and vehicle recoveries that it has initiated, the return on investment for L.A. taxpayers is abysmal. Less than half a percent of the total crime in L.A. was thwarted because of a helicopter patrol. That said, you likely will not find a single police officer who isn’t comforted by the fact that those helicopters are there when they need them.
Unless the LAPD voluntarily decides to reduce its use of helicopters, the chances that their time is coming to an end are very slim. And all signs point to a desire by the LAPD to maintain the Air Support Division for as long as it can. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration has had trouble enacting regulations intended to make things a little quieter for L.A. residents. And complaints about helicopter noise are largely ignored and not even documented. For those who dislike them, the best advice might be to accept them as yet another strangely cinematic feature of living in Los Angeles.