‘It’s extremely cutting edge,’ the head of the LAPD’s air support unit says of its helicopter program
They seem as common as squawking gulls, and true Angelenos may not even bother to look up when one of the LAPD’s 17 helicopters rattles their windows, its spotlight searching for a car-jacked Camry or an assault suspect hiding under a jacaranda.
In a city of 469 sprawling square miles, few doubt that more bad guys would get away without the nation’s largest police helicopter fleet to help chase them.
Now the LAPD is pioneering the use of helicopters to stop crimes before they start.
Tapping into the data-driven policing trend, the department uses heat maps, technology and years of statistics to identify crime “hot spots.” Pilots then use their downtime to fly over them, on the theory that would-be criminals tend to rethink their nefarious plans when there’s an airship hovering overhead.
What some see as an innovative tool for keeping the peace, however, others call a deafening intrusion.
As iconic as palm trees, LAPD helicopters — “ghetto birds” as Ice Cube calls them — have played a “good cop-bad cop” role in popular culture for decades. The benign “whirlybirds” that flew out of a San Fernando Valley airport on crime-solving missions in the 1950s TV series of that name became ominous “helicopter gunships” in dystopian author Mike Davis’ “City of Quartz,” and omnipresent LAPD “spinners” in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.”
The Los Angeles Police Department began exploring the deterrent approach a few years ago with a new model called predictive policing that deployed officers and patrol cars to areas where data suggested crime was more likely to occur.
Criminologists say the use of helicopters is a natural, if highly unusual, expansion of that policing strategy.
So far, LAPD officials say, the stats show the strategy is having a positive effect. Months of data show that the number of serious crimes reported in the LAPD’s Newton Division in South L.A. fell during weeks when the helicopters conducted more flights.
“It’s extremely cutting edge,” says Capt. Gary Walters, who heads the LAPD’s air support unit. “It’s different. It’s nothing that we’ve ever done before with this specificity.”
During the week of June 21, 2013, the helicopter unit flew 36 times over Newton, which saw 125 crimes reported in that period. During another week in July, the number of flights rose to 91 and the recorded crimes dropped to 86.
The most pronounced difference came last September. During the week of Sept. 13, when the helicopter unit flew over Newton 65 times, the division recorded 90 crimes. A week later, the number of flights dropped to 40 and the number of reported crimes skyrocketed to 136, with rises seen among almost all types of crime, including burglary, car theft and thefts from vehicles.
Craig Uchida, a policing consultant who analyzes data for the LAPD and offers advice on crime prevention strategies, says it is too early to prove a definitive link between the flights and drops in crime. But the results so far, he said, are encouraging.
“Certainly it provides another layer and blanket of security for our folks,” says Capt. Ed Prokop, who until recently oversaw the Newton Division.
And the preventative flights sometimes yield unexpected results.
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