How Will Helicopter Noise Relief Act Help Those in Heavily Policed Communities?

Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association gave out these stickers at the helicopter activity town hall meeting yesterday. Kris Fortin/LAStreetsblog
The Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association gave out stickers at a town hall meeting in 2012. That meeting was one of several that led to the creation of Los Angeles Residential Helicopter Noise Relief Act. (Kris Fortin/LA Streetsblog)

If you live in an area with a lot of police helicopter activity, it can be very frustrating.

Not just because it can wake you up in the middle of the night, rattling your windows, shaking your walls, or occasionally even shining a spotlight inside your apartment.

But also because you rarely learn why it was there in the first place or whether it actually helped resolve a crime.

Questions like that have led many to wonder if their use is excessive.

For folks living in areas like South L.A. and Boyle Heights, the “ghetto birds” are, as Boyle Heights’ blogger Erick Huerta told Warren Olney during a Which Way, L.A.? segment on the topic this week, as ubiquitous as “mockingbirds or sparrows or anything else that’s around the neighborhood. On any given night, you’ll hear the bird up there, twirling around maybe 30, 40 minutes, and then flashing their lights into everybody’s houses.”

It’s so routine, in fact, that the presence of helicopters serve as a signal for he and other residents to take to social media to try to find out what’s the latest happening in the area.

For others in South L.A., they can provide a grim backdrop to the soundtrack of the neighborhood and a sense of being under constant surveillance. One youth told me he wears headphones to bed at night in order to drown out the sounds of the helicopters.

“Do you…and people in your neighborhood agree [the presence of helicopters] is a necessary thing?” Olney asked Huerta.

They were discussing the Los Angeles Residential Helicopter Noise Relief Act, which was included in the omnibus spending bill by Senator Feinstein and Congressman Schiff. Directed primarily at news choppers and those offering aerial tours through the Hollywood Hills and other well-to-do communities, the legislation “would require the FAA to develop regulations related to the impact of helicopter use on the quality of life of L.A. County residents within one year…and encourages the FAA to act independently of legislation to reduce helicopter noise in Los Angeles.”

Unusually, the legislation does not carry an exemption for helicopter use by law enforcement or fire fighters.

While some might see that as problematic, given that many feel helicopters are a necessary tool in fighting both crime and fires, it could also be a good thing. It might finally prompt more in-depth studies regarding the effectiveness of helicopters in reducing or resolving crime.

The last comprehensive study appears to have been done in 1998, comparing helicopter usage in Miami-Dade and Baltimore counties. That study, while not particularly conclusive, did find that they could be rather effective as backup in pursuits of stolen vehicles.

Sixteen years later, the role of helicopters has greatly expanded.

In a look at the matter last spring, KPCC found that helicopters were often the first to swoop down on the scene, arriving ahead of officers more than 16,000 times in 2012. In comparison, they served as backup 4000+ times. They also helped set more than 1500 perimeters and are in the air, on average, 20 hours every single day.

And, while there is a plethora of regularly reviewed information on when and where the helicopters are deployed, effectiveness is not part of the analysis.

So, while the LAPD considers helicopters to have “assisted” in a sizable proportion of felony arrests by feeding ground officers information, to date, there has been no wider assessment of whether those bits of information were essential to the resolution of those particular incidents.

Language and other barriers in marginalized communities can preclude residents from engaging the authorities or elected officials about things like excessive helicopter noise, suggested Huerta.

Yet, these are the communities that would probably benefit much more than folks in the hills from a more judicious use of helicopters (if indeed they are being used in excess in policing). Quieter nights would make neighborhoods feel more peaceful. Safer, too, as many assume the worst must have happened if a helicopter is hovering overhead for an hour at 3 a.m.

For residents like Huerta, that means a study exploring the effectiveness of helicopters in policing may be in order before they can offer an opinion on whether the choppers are necessary. Not to keep law enforcement from doing their job, he explained, but to have a better understanding of how much they really need that air support.

Considering costs to fly, fuel, and maintain LAPD helicopters equal nearly $20 million a year, maybe it is finally time to give that question some thought.

What say you? How do you feel about helicopter noise in your neighborhood? Does the sound of a helicopter reassure you that police are doing their job? Does it make you feel more unsafe? Or have they become background noise for you?

  • Dave

    I can guarantee you your neighborhood will not be safer with a smaller LAPD helicopter presence. Asking tourist helicopters to fly higher sounds reasonable. And I am sure there is room for the LAPD Air Support Division to improve in community relations, if only LAPD would reach out to the community… I thought I read once that each LAPD helicopter “offset” the need for 10 additional patrol units (according to the LAPD). Its also hard to put a price on the extra security a helicopter can provide a patrol unit in a dangerous situation.

  • sahra

    It’s possible you read that somewhere, but they actually have not done studies of effectiveness, so that was likely speculation. I think first defining what “effective” means and then establishing the conditions under which they are effective is probably a good start. I don’t disagree with the idea that they can be very useful. I’m just not sure they need to be deployed as consistently and intensely as they are in certain areas of town.

  • P.

    I would just love a place where I could find our what is happening. I live near MLK Park at Western and 39th and I can count on My hands the number of nights we have been copter free above our house in the year or so we have lived here. I also get the sense we are close enough to the Southwest station at Denker and MLK that we happen to be over some sort of a designated flightpath. I subscribe to @LAScanner, @LAPD_Southwest and a few others and never seem to find the info I’m looking for. I have been tempted to plunk $500 down for a scanner of my own but having listend to them in the past it is hard to decifer the coded language on the channels

  • HighNoon

    Have you tried looking for a twitter feed such as @EagleRock311, these are feeds that tend to focus on the scanner calls in particular areas. I’ve found it to be generally up-to date and consistent with details that later emerge. Try looking for something similar with your community’s moniker.

  • P.

    Yep, I have. @SouthLA311 has one which is focused on the 77th Div., so it’s a little far away. No one has yet put one together for the Expo Park/Southwest LAPD area.

  • sahra

    True–that corridor always has something going on at night. And yet the prostitution continues pretty much unabated along Western, as does some of the other activity that you would think all that frenzy in the skies would put a lid on. But tracking what police are doing in South LA can be tough. When I asked once about a blotter that would list things like shots fired, arrests, or other activity (thinking that i just hadn’t been smart enough to stumble across it yet), the officer laughed at the idea that they would track shots fired. I’ll keep looking into it, though. Now that this act will likely need to be implemented, maybe Sen. Schiff will support that kind of infrastructure being put in place so people can both see what’s going on in their community and complain about it if it is unnecessary. Probably not, but maybe it is something we can lobby for….

  • mark vallianatos

    based on the FAA’s 2013 report on the issue, none of the main proposals they are considering would seem to apply to law enforcement. They do mention encouraging shifts to quieter copters, which presumably could be a goal for police/ sheriff depts…

    Or switch to more drones, which would bring its own set of issues. It would be nice for large police depts to analyze the effectiveness of all their vehicle/ transportation mix, including cars, copters, bikes, foot patrols.

  • Per the KPCC series “You can call the LAPD Air Support Division with a question or complaint about police helicopter activity at 213 485-2600”..

  • CityEye

    Many people in Boyle Heights welcome those helicopters because at night officers on the ground can’t see and the violent criminals in the backyards of residents trying to hide. An LAPD helicopter was over a scene in the Valley where violent criminals who were randomly shooting at people were caught because the helicopter could see them from above. LAPD helicopters are the eyes for Officers on the ground because they can see a much larger area. The solution would be for people in the communities like South LA, Eastside and Pacoima to start neighborhood watches and be part of the solution instead of whining. Crime is everyone’s problem not just law enforcement

  • sahra

    If they are being used in a way that actually helps resolve crime, then people are not going to complain. But it isn’t clear that helicopters spend the majority of their time spotlighting violent criminals in backyards. The study cited above noted they were most effective in pursuits of stolen cars. The KPCC piece cited above notes that even the LAPD is unsure of the extent to which air support was essential to resolving issues on the ground. The thing about helicopters is that their effectiveness may be both qualitative and quantitative. A helicopter hovering overhead when an attempted break-in is reported may keep a thief from trying to resume breaking in (in the way a patrol car just driving by at intervals might not) and it may reassure people that their call is being taken seriously. And in a sprawling city, it is not surprising that they can be the first on a scene, which can often be a good thing. The problem is that it appears no one has bothered to try to catalog the strengths and weaknesses of using helicopters, and so they may be used in excess, disrupting the sleep of many families. Better knowledge of the conditions under which they are most effective would benefit everyone.

  • sahra

    Yes, I think the word I should have used was “should” rather than “could” trigger a study…

  • For the past two nights, the Fast and Furious 7 production team took helicopter disturbances to a whole new level, conducting truly dangerous maneuvers 20ft above residential apts in the Arts District at 3AM.

  • allthecraze44

    Last night the helicopters woke me up. I was enjoying the FRESH smell in the air until i saw, in the light beams, this stuff. And the air smelt dirty & musky…. So thismorning, i saw after some looking, all this yellow stuff everywhere!!! And i thought it was just pollen, but i dont have any pollen bearing plants in my backyard. So i whent in my front yard, got some real pollen, and looked at it under a 2x strength magnifying glass, and they were the same color, but the FAKE pollen was like, 2 times bigger! So i think that they are ruining our gardens, o rsomething of the sort. And im really concerned that they’re waking me up everyother night cause I WANT ME SOME SLEEP!!!!!!! If any of you see the helicopters dropping stuff like i did, please report it on this site!!!! Btw, I’m in spokane valley.

  • allthecraze44

    Im so stupid!! I was in such a craze that i thought pollen was all the same size! But still, i kno wthe helicopter dropped something.

  • DME

    when that’s the case, yes. The question is, are they being deployed during times where it’s not necessary? Just because there is police activities, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re necessary. What you’re saying is based on the asinine assumption that people who want their use audited, are in favor of crime. Are you retarded?

  • Omar Ortiz

    It’s 3am helicopter making Noice all night they aren’t superheroes nobody liikes them GOD bless Christopher Dorner

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