March 28, 2016 11:03 PM   Subscribe

My last few years in L.A. (late 1990s-early 2000s), it was common to hear LAPD helicopters flying over at night... at least at certain addresses; it was how I determined if I was in a 'good neighborhood' if there were LESS chopper flyovers. Then since moving up the coast to the San Luis Obispo/Pismo Beach area in 2005, the only helicopters I hear are either some military exercise out of Vandenberg AFB (and they don't often come this far north) or County Fire with a load of fire retardant to dump on a brush fire. Usually not at night, but that's more ominous than anything the LAPD could do.
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:08 AM on March 29, 2016

I guess that I'm glad that I live in a city that's too poor to afford police helicopters. The news and medical ones are annoying enough.
posted by octothorpe at 4:40 AM on March 29, 2016

Be glad they're not operating CH-47s, I guess. If you want something that'll rattle your body cavity, that's it right there.
posted by indubitable at 4:50 AM on March 29, 2016

Indianapolis got their first helicopter sometime in the mid-late-60's. A slick-looking Bell 206 JetRanger (which was pretty much every city's first helicopter back then). Both the police and fire departments had to share it. The cops mostly used it as a patrol unit, monitoring traffic. Occasionally, they used it to light-up a night crime or accident scene.

The fire department used it as a command center for large fires, like warehouses, to see the entire scene and direct efforts more effectively.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:20 AM on March 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

On discovering recently that Taliban fighters will routinely use thermal blankets to move around undetectably at night, I've recently wondered when that trend will start coming to American cities.
posted by mhoye at 6:10 AM on March 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

The Phoenix Police Department has has an air support unit since the early '70s. I came of age in the Valley of the Sun in the mid-'80s and had several, ahem, encounters with them. Not for anything particularly criminal but for stupid things like, "Hey, there's a cop car. We're bored. Let's Run." and "Playing hide-and-seek on the roof of the elementary school is absolutely not trespassing. Oh, it is?"

Did you know that rooftop solar panels shedding heat in the summer after dark can mask teenaged body heat from helicopter-mounted infrared?
posted by djeo at 6:29 AM on March 29, 2016 [12 favorites]

Have to reread City of Quartz.
posted by My Dad at 8:02 AM on March 29, 2016

When the former Mr. Carmicha and I moved to LA in 1987, a last minute glitch (landlord's child broke her arm) meant that our lease remained unsigned on the day we were to take occupancy. With a wink, the agent told us not to spend the night at the property, even though we had already been given the keys, put the utilities in our names and scheduled the movers for the next morning. Of course we ignored that instruction and proceed to celebrate our new life in LA by getting plenty toasty.

While sound asleep on the floor of our future bedroom, suddenly there was a blinding light, loud rotar noise, and the sound of scary instructions being delivered through a megaphone. We were being ordered to surrender, to lie face down with our hands behind our heads. After instinctively complying, we then became confused--was this all really because a neighbor had reported us as squatters? Since the doors were locked, were they going to kick them open? Maybe this wasn't about us after all.

We crept to the window and peered out. Our yard was filled with cops surrounding a man lying prone on the grass. The helicopter continued to circle, the light bouncing into our house. We decided it would be best to remain hidden. It seemed like a long time before they left. Later, neighbors told us the guy was charged with robbing a local store. The whole experience was weird and terrifying.
posted by carmicha at 9:20 AM on March 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

The other night, at 4am, I heard what I took to be multiple helicopters flying above my neighborhood. I asked on social media, but no one knew anything about them (in fact, nobody responded at that hour) so I rolled over and went back to sleep.

The story the neighbors told, at the school bus stop next morning, was that three people had attempted to break into a house in our development. There was video, allegedly, from the owner's security cameras. Something caused them to give up the attempt and try to run away, and, by morning, two of the three were in police custody.

I'm of very mixed mind about this. I recognize immediately that this level of police service would not be on offer if the homeowner was calling from other, less prosperous Baltimore neighborhoods. But somebody attempted to 'bump' our front door lock recently (which I then had to replace), and, with a wife and kids in the house, I want the place to be safe and for my family to not be constantly worried or feel like they have to be on-the-lookout.
posted by newdaddy at 9:32 AM on March 29, 2016

It reminded me of Blue Thunder, though looking at unsuspecting people on the beach is not nearly as creepy as spying on women in their homes.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:43 AM on March 29, 2016

Not too long ago, someone was murdered in the parking lot of the shopping plaza about a block from me. The killer evidently fled quickly by car to the nearby freeway, but the helicopters kept flying around for about two hours, shining those very bright lights everywhere. That the killer had been gone since the attack was being reported on the news and still the helicopter flew around and examined everything with the lights.

On a more fun note, when Harrison Ford crashed his airplane, there were three or four helicopters (mostly news, but at least one LAPD) hovering over the crash site for a couple hours (the news guys were there until after the 6 o'clock news, I think).

I think helicopters are really Los Angeles' native birds.
posted by Death and Gravity at 9:47 AM on March 29, 2016

Last night I watched a 2 hour discussion with Edward Snowden, Glen Greenwald, & Noam Chomsky, and Snowden brought up the point that as a society its pretty reasonable to put people under surveillance... As long as there is accountability and transparency for that surveillance (ie: court order that specifically targets the person), as we have a vested interest as a society in protecting society against violent people. The problem is mass surveillance without transparency or accountability. The thing about helicopters is that it's pretty evident to the entire city that they are present, and where they are.

It's pretty resource intensive to be chasing someone with a helicopter, so it's not something you want to employ against nonviolent shoplifters, for example.

As someone that has concerns about a panopticon, and mass surveillance, I don't have a ton of concern about police helicopters.

That being said, I don't have that same opinion about an army of drones always circling above, looking down at everything, or realtime ubiquitous satellite surveillance.
posted by el io at 10:43 AM on March 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Thx for link to discussion with Edward Snowden, Glen Greenwald, & Noam Chomsky,
posted by dancestoblue at 10:49 AM on March 29, 2016

There have been a few nights where I cursed the LAPD air division because, yes, 5 helicopters in an 'endless gyre' above your home is a nuisance to say the least. In retaliation I wrote a scathing review of their Wilshire Area Heliport.

But also there was the time one pilot buzzed me while I was riding in the Verdugos and I waved and they whooped the siren at me. I'd like to imagine even a helicopter pilot is a little jealous of a mid-day pedal up into the verdant mountains on a beautiful spring day.
posted by carsonb at 11:18 AM on March 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

This was so interesting. I weirdly kind of miss the constant whub-whub-whub of police helicopters since I moved away. I was on the westside and it was pretty much everpresent background noise, along with the white noise from all the big freeways and major thoroughfares. It seemed like it'd be impossible to get much policing done without air support, since even with sirens on there are times of day when nobody dependent on surface streets is getting much of anywhere too terribly fast.

I sleep a lot better now, but sometimes my neighborhood does feel stiflingly quiet.
posted by town of cats at 1:00 PM on March 29, 2016

I'm obsessed with the helicopters of Los Angeles. I created a localwiki page to help people identify the ones they might see.

About 10 years ago, during my first year in LA, I had a transformative moment. It was late evening, and there was an LAPD helicopter orbiting low and loud over my apartment. While walking back from the laundry room, carrying my basket of clean laundry, the chopper apparently decided that I might be interesting. Suddenly I was transfixed by a blinding light from the heavens. It felt both sci-fi and biblical, like I'd been found by a Terminator-style Hunter-Killer or chosen by God. I was Noticed. I stopped and looked up. After 5-10 seconds, I was deemed uninteresting and the spotlight moved on.

I spent a few years learning about the choppers and trying to come up with ways to track them. I wanted to map their territories and characterize their behaviors like they were just large birds. Which neighborhoods were their favorites for hunting, and where did they live? I learned the specific models used by LAPD and typical engine and blade RPMs, and read academic papers on the sound created by different parts of helicopters with the goal of building an acoustic tracker. I looked into whether it would be possible (and legal) to use a small marine radar to track them. I made videos and images of what I thought I would find once I cracked the tracking problem.

Then the software defined radio revolution happened, and one day I could track aircraft from my home office with a $30 USB dongle.

This (KML)is just a few weeks worth of police helicopter tracks I recorded--The reason it seems like there's always a police helicopter overhead in LA is because there's always a police helicopter overhead.

I can identify some of the helicopters by sound now, when they fly over my house. N520PD is the most common one, a joint purchase by the Glendale and Burbank police departments, with a distinctive sound due to the lack of a tail rotor. This is an animation I did by superimposing several dozen tracks from separate flights by N520PD.

My interest in police helicopters got sidelined a bit by the FBI aerial surveillance thing, but I'd like to get back to my original reason for tracking aircraft soon.
posted by jjwiseman at 11:03 PM on March 29, 2016 [11 favorites]

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